Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Plague On Both Your Houses

For supporters of political reform, this has been a discouraging week, with it appearing that both reform of the House of Lords and the constituency reform dead in the water.

By making it clear that the Liberal Democrats will not back the new constituency boundaries, is it really a case that Nick Clegg, the Lord President of the Council, is having a hissy fit, is being childish, is throwing his toys out of the pram etc?.

What does the coalition agreement actually say?

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.

From the Conservative side, there seems to be two arguments:

  • The boundary changes were connected with the referendum on switching from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote
  • The party has gone beyond the letter of the agreement by allowing Clegg to introduce a Bill for reforming the House of Lords
  • Unfortunately, two can play that game. The agreement only committed the Liberal Democrats to supporing the Parliamentary Voting Systems & Constituencies Act 2011 and technically the actual introduction of the new boundaries is through a Statutory Instrument which the Liberal Democrats have not committed themselves to backing.

    Are the boundary changes unconnected to reform of the House of Lords? In the agreement, the boundary changes are mentioned in the same breath as the AV referendum. One valid criticism that the Conservatives made of the last Labour Government's constitutional and parliamentary reforms was that they were done piecemeal and without thinking of the implications in other areas.

    My concern is that the Conservatives have fallen into the same trap Labour did- yes, the constitutional and parliamentary reforms in the agreement are in separate paragraphs, but I would veer to the Liberal Democrat side in seeing them as a holistic package- boundary changes, improving accountability of the Government by Westminster, House of Lords reform, recall elections etc. are all aspects of the same thing, and you can't pick and choose.

    So, where is the path forwards? Like anything in politics, to see the path ahead of us, we need to see where we came from.

    The Wakeham Commission produced its report in January 2000, in the wake of the House of Lords Act 1999. It suggested a House of Lords of about 550 members, with some of them being "regional members"- i.e. members chosen to represent the non-English nations within the United Kingdom and the regions within England. In addition, the House of Lords Appointment Commission should be responsible for ensuring that the House of Lords is representative (to avoid the Prime Minister of the day having a say in the size and composition of the House of Lords), and ensure that around 20% are Crossbenchers. The Commission's preference was for 87 regional members (equal to the number of Members of the European Parliament that the United Kingdom elected in June 1999) to serve for 15 years, elected by the d'Hondt system used in European elections. These would be elected in thirds.

    Sometimes, one criticism of the Government's (now-defunct) plans for House of Lords reform are that they were devised in a historical vacuum to keep the Liberal Democrats happy. However, from the Wakeham Commission, we get the 15 year terms, the 20% of members being Crossbenchers and the election by d'Hondt in thirds.

    In November 2000, the Labour Government produced a response to the Wakeham Commission. This proposed a 600-member House of Lords (although larger for the transitional period) with 20% of them Crossbenchers, 20% (i.e. 120) directly-elected on a regional basis and the remaining 60% chosen by the parties, but with the Appointments Commission (put on a statutory footing) deciding how many appointed members each party was entitled to.

    In addition, the Government was attrached to the idea that the elected element be elected in thirds at the same time as elections to the House of Commons, but noted that 15-year terms were longer than those in any democracy. However, the then-Government also noted that existing members of the House of Lords generally serve for life, and the Canadian Senate has appointed Senators who serve until age 75.

    In February 2007, the Labour Government produced another report followed by a vote in the House of Commons the following month where an 80% elected House of Lords got a majority of 38, while an all-elected House of Lords got a majority of 113.

    Rather than the House of Lords being an obession for the Liberal Democrats, reform of it has been the subject of 3 major reports in the past 13 years, and the House of Commons has expressed its preference for a mainly- or fully-elected House of Lords.

    So, what is the way forward? The Bill that Clegg introduced saw reform in three phases, with the first "transitional" House of Lords from May 2015 to May 2020. That saw the House of Lords for that session being:

  • 120 directly-elected members for a 15-year term
  • 30 Crossbenchers appointed by the Appointments Commission for a 15-year term
  • The Archbishops of Canterbury and York; the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester; and 16 other diocesan Bishops
  • Ministerial members
  • Transitional members
  • The Bill set the transitional members to be two-thirds of the number of peers in receipt of a writ of summons at 27 June 2012. The numbers for 2 July 2012 (which is unchanged from 27 June) is here. What we have are:

  • Labour- 226
  • Conservative- 213
  • Crossbench- 177
  • Liberal Democrat- 90
  • Minor parties & non-aligned- 33 (includes 4 Ulster Unionist Party, 4 Democratic Unionist Party, 2 UK Independence Party, 2 Plaid Cymru, 2 Independent Labour, 1 Independent Conservative, 1 Independent Liberal Democrat)
  • Bishops- 26
  • That gives 765 peers, so under the Clegg proposals the House of Lords would have elected 510 to serve in the 2015-2020 session. If the method of election for hereditary peers is followed, we should expect around 156 Labour, 147 Conservative, 145 Crossbench & Others and 62 Liberal Democrats.

    So, if we use this method of election, and just the 120 directly-elcted members, then a House of Lords with 630 members would have the following properties:

  • 120 of them (19%) would be elected- close to the figures in previous reports
  • 145 of them (23%) would be not aligned to a major politcal party- just above the figures in previous reports
  • To get the 316 needed for an overall majority, Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them would need to get 98 of the elected members (that is 82% of them)
  • Even if the largest party in the House of Lords- Labour- won all the elected members, then it would still be 40 members short of an overall majority
  • Such a House of Lords would thus be close to what has been proposed in previous reports. And it can be introduced with minor tinkering with Clegg's Bill.

    Now to a more technical matter- what happens with the 120 elected members? If just 40 were elected, then the regional allocation would be:

  • South East England- 5
  • London- 5
  • North West England- 5
  • Eastern England- 4
  • West Midlands- 4
  • South West England- 3
  • Scotland- 3
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 3
  • East Midlands- 3
  • Wales- 2
  • North East England- 2
  • Northern Ireland- 1
  • While if 80 were elected, then the regional allocation would be:

  • South East England- 11
  • London- 9
  • North West England- 9
  • Eastern England- 8
  • West Midlands- 7
  • South West England- 7
  • Scotland- 7
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 7
  • East Midlands- 6
  • Wales- 4
  • North East England- 3
  • Northern Ireland- 2
  • While if 120 were elected, then the regional allocation would be:

  • South East England- 16
  • London- 14
  • North West England- 14
  • Eastern England- 11
  • West Midlands- 11
  • South West England- 11
  • Scotland- 10
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 10
  • East Midlands- 9
  • Wales- 6
  • North East England- 5
  • Northern Ireland- 3
  • How could this be used? If 120 are elected in thirds, then 40 are elected each time. When the US Senate was set up, its members were allocated by lot into Class I, II and III Senators, with some serving for 2 years, others 4 and others 6, while from then on the Senate has been elected in thirds for 6-year terms (equal to 3 terms of the House of Representatives).

    We could use the d'Hondt system to elect 120 initial members, and then allocate some to serve 5, 10 and 15 years. Take South East England for example. The first 5 elected (corresponding to having 40 elected members) could serve to 2030. The next 6 (corresponding to the 41st to 80th elected members) could serve to 2025. While the last 5 could serve to 2020.

    While the initial election could be by d'Hondt, elections from 2020 could be by Single Transferable Vote- the largest number to be elected in one go would be 6 from South East England in 2025, 2040, and every 15 years from then, and experience of using STV in the Northern Ireland Assembly shows that it can be used with a constituency as large as a 6-seater.

    When a region or nation returns 1 member, then STV would become AV.

    Onto the other aspect, the House of Commons constiuency boundaries. For the Liberal Democrats, the reduction in size of the House of Commons would be balanced out by the election of members of the House of Lords. But does the May 2015 election have to be fought on the same boundaries? What if the Government were to make the Boundary Commissions draw up new constituencies based on equal-sized 650 seats?:

  • South East England- 90 (up 6), including two seats on the Isle of Wight under the special provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System & Constituencies Act 2011
  • London- 74 (up 1)
  • North West England- 74 (down 1)
  • Eastern England- 61 (up 3)
  • West Midlands- 58 (down 1)
  • South West England- 57 (up 2)
  • Scotland- 57 (down 2), including Na hEileanan An Iar and Orkney & Shetland, which are preserved under the Parliamentary Voting System & Constituencies Act 2011
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 54 (unchanged)
  • East Midlands- 48 (up 2)
  • Wales- 32 (down 8)
  • North East England- 28 (down 1)
  • Northern Ireland- 17 (down 1)
  • The Boundary Commissions would be capable of producing new, fairer, constituencies in a short timescale.

    Reform of the House of Lords and redrawing the boundaries are salvagable.

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