Billy Bragg is wrong about the House of Lords

Billy Bragg

Well-known singer and campaigner Billy Bragg has launched his own campaign for reform of the House of Lords, proposing it should be elected at the same time as the House of Commons. The novelty of the scheme is that it proposes using the same votes as are cast in the elections for the Commons but counting them differently (the so-called “secondary mandate” system).

The Commons would remain as it is now, elected using first past the post (FPTP) in single member constituencies. Members of the elected Lords would be drawn from party lists in proportion to their votes on a regional basis. (This latter system is in fact the method used to elect members of the European Parliament.) The appointed and hereditary members of the second chamber would lose their seats.

The need to bring democracy to the second chamber in Westminster is long overdue, but Billy Bragg’s proposal goes about it the wrong way.

He is making three assumptions, none of which are correct. He supposes that that the only elections that count are national; that the electoral system for the House of Commons should remain unchanged; and that party lists are a good way of choosing parliamentarians.

The first problem is that the electoral mandate of the second chamber will be identical to that of the House of Commons. They would both be elected by the same voters on the same issues at the same time, using in fact the same votes. In some ways, because it will be elected by PR rather than FPTP, the House of Lords might even claim to have more legitimacy. The House of Commons might support the government but will not be able to support its legislative programme if a directly-elected upper house objects. The outcome will be gridlock.

Secondly, the debate about electoral reform for the House of Commons will find itself entangled in the debate about the House of Lords. If the Lords were to be elected by PR, the case for electing the Commons by PR would become harder to make. It would not become any less necessary, of course, because it will still be the House of Commons that chooses the government. (The case for PR rests as much on increasing the legitimacy of the government as it does on altering the composition of the legislature.) On the other hand, if the House of Commons were subsequently to be elected by PR, where would this leave the House of Lords? One of the apparent attractions of the Bragg proposal is that it will give each chamber in the legislature a different composition. The introduction of PR in the lower house would remove this feature of the scheme.

(Note that this is not to say that federalists should necessarily prefer PR for the House of Commons – federalism can co-exist with FPTP voting – but it is to say that pro-PR federalists are entitled to object to a scheme that would make PR harder to introduce. The point is that the Bragg scheme is not neutral on the subject.)

The third difficulty is the fact that members of the second chamber will be chosen from party lists. In the 1999 European elections, the 87 British MEPs were elected on such a list system which was widely criticised for restricting voter choice. Many candidates were high on their party lists and thus could be certain of being elected. On each party list, there were perhaps one or two who were unsure whether their party would get enough votes. For example, the Conservatives in London expected to get between three and five MEPs elected – the top three on the list were thus guaranteed to get in; the voters could only influence numbers 4 and 5.

A second chamber with 600 members would increase enormously the number of candidates who could be sure of election. Each region would have on average 50 representatives, compared with 8 MEPs. Voter choice is not going to be increased by creating yet more safe seats.

(Again, it is possible for federalists to support the idea of party lists: it just so happens that this federalist does not.)

Federal Union has proposed a means of electing an upper house that would create a democratic upper house, ending the presence of appointed or hereditary figures in the legislature without duplicating or challenging the electoral mandate of the House of Commons. This scheme would see the members of the second chamber indirectly elected, that is to say elected by members of local and regional government and the devolved assemblies and parliaments.

By representing regional and local levels of government directly in the Westminster process, we would also create a mechanism for resisting and reversing unnecessary centralisation. At present, all other models for an elected second chamber would simply replicate the debates that go on in the House of Commons. The left-right spectrum is dominant. There is an additional concern – a centre-periphery debate – that does not get raised at present but which should be. One of the undesirable trends in British politics in recent years has been one of the centralisation of power in Westminster and Whitehall. Ensuring that the electoral mandate of members of the second chamber derived not from the centralised party political machines but from elected regional government would be an important means of preventing and indeed reversing this trend.

A criticism may be voiced that the UK does not have a consistent model of regional and local government throughout the country. Scotland has a powerful parliament with legislative and tax-raising powers; Wales has an assembly with weaker powers; much of England has no elected regional government at all. For this purpose, that criticism does not matter.

But even if the model of elected regional and local government varies across the United Kingdom, there are nevertheless elected regional and local politicians throughout. An electorate exists. It might be preferable if there was a comprehensive set of regional assemblies in England to vote for their representatives in the second chamber, but there are much more important arguments for elected regional assemblies than this one. (As with the case for PR for the House of Commons, it is better to treat each argument on its merits – a acknowledging the linkages – rather than setting out to make things more complicated than they need to be.)

The government’s programme of reform of the House of Lords has stalled after the first stage. Two stage processes in politics often do. The House of Commons has proved unable to settle on a single model for the future – when different mixtures of elected and appointed members were put to the vote, not one of them emerged with majority support. The committee that was asked to take the debate forward has proved unable to do so.

An exciting new idea is needed. Billy Bragg has proposed one such, although it is sadly flawed. Indirect election is a better idea. Many countries, including Germany and France, have second chambers based on indirect election. The UK should follow suit.

Richard Laming is a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union, and can be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. March 2004.

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