Thursday, 26 April 2012

Government Formation & House of Lords Reform

This week saw the Joint Select Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill produce their report on the Draft Bill.

Just a matter of terminology- looking at the future upper chamber I will use the term Senate to describe the chamber and Senators for its members. Easier to write than "House of Lords" and "members of the House of Lords". In addition, I will use the term "region" to refer to the European constituencies set up by the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 and will include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the word "regions"- just to avoid writing "regions and nations".

The first issue I want to look at is that of elections. The Government's proposals were for an 80:20 split, with a 300-member House, so there would be 240 elected Senators and 60 appointed ones. The Committee favours 450 Senators- which would mean 360 elected and 90 appointed Senators. Electing and appointing in thirds would mean that at each General Election, there would be 120 Senators elected and 30 appointed for 15-year terms.

The Governmenr also proposes the use of the Single Transferable Vote system to elect Senators, with districts returning between 5 and 7 Senators. For comparison, the Irish Republic's Dail Eireann has constituencies electing between 3 and 5 Teachta Dala, and Northern Ireland's Assembly uses constituencies that all elect 6 Members of the Legislative Assembly.

Now, the obvious base for the districts are the regions. If the number of Senators is allocated by Saint-Lague, then we get:

  • South East England- 16
  • London- 14
  • North West England- 14
  • Eastern England- 11
  • South West England- 11
  • West Midlands- 11
  • Scotland- 10
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 10
  • East Midlands- 9
  • Wales- 6
  • North East England- 5
  • Northern Ireland- 3
  • At first it seems simple- Wales, North East England and Norhern Ireland are all small enough to each form a single district (Northern Ireland is a bit too small, but there is nothing that can be done about that). South East England can be divided into a 6-seater and two 5-seaters. London and North West England can each be split into rwo 7-seaters. Eastern England, South West England and West Midlands can each be split into a 6-seater and a 5-seater. Scotland and Yorkshire & Humberside can each be split into two 5-seaters.

    Ah, East Midlands. Too big to be a single district, too small to be split into two districts. The logical solution is to have a Midlands region which would be split into two 7-seaters and a 6-seater.

    If the House of Commons is reduced to 600 MPs, then at each election, we would elect 1 Senator for every 5 MPs. So, these districts would have 25 to 35 constituencies in them. In a previous post I had a look whether the Additional Members System might be a way forward for elections to the House of Commons- if so, then Senate districts could function as the areas where the top-up MPs are elected (if we go for 15% of MPs being top-up, then each district could return 4 or 5 top-ups; if we have 20% of MPs being top-up, then each district could return between 5 and 7 top-ups).

    With that out of the way, we can then have a look at a possible result. There are some assumptions:

  • We treat West Midlands and East Midlands as a single region
  • The share of the vote for each party in a region matches the vote at the corresponding General Election
  • Within a region, the share of the vote for a party is the same in each district (e.g. if it got 40% of the vote across the region, it got 40% of the vote in each district in the region)
  • STV is tricky to model, so we will use the d'Hondt system as a first approximation.
  • So, the rough figures of Senators elected in May 2010 are:

  • Conservative- 48 (up 10)
  • Labour- 39 (down 19)
  • Liberal Democrats- 28 (up 9)
  • Scottish National Party- 2 (unchanged)
  • Sinn Fein- 1 (up 1)
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 1 (up 1)
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 1 (unchanged)
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 0 (down 2)
  • You may wonder what I am comparing the changes with. If a Senate is elected in thirds, then these are the changes from the May 1997 election- so, as Labour loses office, Labour Senators elected in the Blair Landslide leave the Senate.

    For comparison, the rough result for May 2001 is:

  • Labour- 54
  • Conservatives- 38
  • Liberal Democrats- 22
  • Scottish National Party- 2
  • Plaid Cymru- 1
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 1
  • Sinn Fein- 1
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 1
  • And for May 2005:

  • Labour- 48
  • Conservatives- 41
  • Liberal Democrats- 25
  • Scottish National Party- 2
  • Plaid Cymru- 1
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 1
  • Sinn Fein- 1
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 1
  • Hence, we would expect the current Senate to look something like:

  • Labour- 141
  • Conservatives- 127
  • Independents- 90
  • Liberal Democrats- 75
  • Scottish National Party- 6
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 3
  • Sinn Fein- 3
  • Plaid Cymru- 2
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 2
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 1
  • Mark Harper, the Minister for Constitutional & Political Reform, made an interesting point about the use of a proportional system:

    If you are electing a Government, my own view is that the challenge with voting systems is that the system which you choose should be one that is weighted towards getting a Government with a majority, who are able to take decisions and where the voters are then able to make a judgment at the end of the term of office ... But if you have a revising or scrutiny Chamber where you do not want the Government to have a majority, you need to use a different voting system. If you were to have first past the post for a second Chamber, all you would do is create a replica of the first Chamber and you would have one of two outcomes. Depending on when you had the elections, you would either give the Government of the day a majority in the second House, in which case there would be little point in having one, or you would give the Opposition a majority ... you would then set up a bloc in the upper House of people who were fundamentally opposed to the proposals that the Government were bringing forward because they were of a different political party

    So, the Conservatives- despite opposing proportionality- are fairly relaxed about its use for the Senate as a Senate does not support a Government. Basically, the House of Commons can ultimately bring down a Government, and indeed there are clauses in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 which enable it to cause a premature general election. Harper's stance is quite logical- First Past The Post tends to lead to single-party majority Government (although, that statement might now be viewed as anachronistic!), snd if used for the Senate would either give s Senate controlled by the Government (so what's the point?) or controlled by the Opposition (so blocking the Government). Americans will be used to the gridlock that can occur, when- as now- the House of Representatives and the Senate are controlled by different parties.

    The House of Lords is, however, a permanently-hung Parliament by design. No single party controls it. To get legislation through quickly, you need to win the arguments, rather than the whipping system. Yes, there are whips, but what's the worst they can do? Deprive you of the whip? For an MP that is nearly always fatal, but someone in the upper chamber cannot seek re-election.

    There are a couple of things I need to mention on Harper's remarks. Firstly, we don't elect a Government- I wince whenever I read that so-and-so was elected as Prime Minister. We elect a Parliament.

    Secondly, if we are entering a period of hung House of Commons, then it is possible that the Senate is in the hands of the Government, and could this influence what shape a Government is?

    After the 2010 election, there were coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats- a majority Government wouldn't have been possible, and a minority Government would have been having to make deals with minor parties and one-woman bands to survive.

    But, now suppose Labour said something like this:

    Yes, of course you and the Conservatives have an overall majority in the House of Commons. But look at the Senate. There are all those Labour Senators elected when we had our 2001 and 2005 victories. You and the Conservatives only have 202 Senators between you- with Sinn Fein not taking their seats, there are 447 Senators and you need 224 for a majority. But our two parties have 216 Senators between us. We can form deals with Plaid Cymru, with the Social Democratic & Labour Party, with the Democratic Unionist Party, just as we can in the House of Commons. That's 6 Senators, bringing us to 222. And we only need a couple of Independents, or the Ulster Unionist Party would do- not all of them support this Ulster Conservatives & Unionists New Force twaddle, ....

    So, Harper might be wrong. If FPTP gives hung Parliaments, then a Senate elected by STV could be a carbon-ish copy of the Commons. Coalition-forming would look carefully at the composition of both chambers of Parliament.

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