Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced he will seek parliamentary approval for a referendum to ditch the first-past-the-post voting system for Westminster elections.It's not really news then, but part of the electoral reform ideas that were being put about several weeks ago, probably to try to woo LibDumb voters. I blogged at the time on why Alternative Vote / Preferential systems won't fix the real problem in the Commons, that of safe seats, since it hasn't done so here in Australia. It's not that it's a bad idea as such, just that it's irrelevant to the issues that have made British politics as disreputable as it is these days. Having an elected second chamber in place of the Lords is likewise not a bad idea, but being a Colostomy Brown idea there's still plenty wrong with it. Make yourselves comfortable. This is going to be another long one.
In a wide-ranging package of planned reforms, he also confirmed that a draft Bill to create a democratically accountable House of Lords will be published within the next few weeks.
I should start by saying that although there are certainly some Peers who have been troughing and taking the piss as much as their Lower House colleagues the title of this post is a little unfair. As I said over at Polaris' place a while back, more than once in the NuLab era it's actually been the Lords who have stood up for ancient liberties by sinking or at least delaying some of the more egregious legislation that was nodded through by the lobby fodder of the Commons. Not often enough, true, and mostly what they have done has been little more than a delaying action, but the point must be made that the Lords have often been the only thing that's stood between the citizens of Britain and yet another piece of illiberal and ill considered legislation - a point Obnoxio the Clown argued a few weeks ago.
... while a lot of libertarians resent the land-ownership of the hereditary peers, the fact that they weren't all from the grasping, venal classes actually made them quite good custodians of our rights. If you look at the regime of New Labour, for instance, the official opposition was utterly useless in the Commons and all the serious defence of the common man ironically came from the Lords. And if we look at the rapid increase in common petty theft in the Lords, is it any surprise that it has all come about since Labour started throwing the money out there to be taken and then appointing people from the grasping, venal classes?Fair enough, and I'm inclined to agree with a fair bit of that. I've felt for some time that Mrs Windsor hasn't lived up to the task of being the ultimate brake on a power crazed government, and in my more cynical moments I've thought that she's been afraid to make a move in case the government respond by attempting to disestablish the monarchy altogether. Personally I wouldn't lose too much sleep over that except for the fact that in the Britain of today the monarch would almost certainly be replaced with another political position, probably not saving any money at all. Also the thought of President Brown is no more appealing to me than the idea of King Charles III. More realistically, since republically inclined Brits are probably in the minority, an intervention by Betty would probably result in the government drawing up legislation to remove even more powers including that last formality of Royal Assent to legislation. So it's possible that she's afraid to rock the boat, but also possible that she thinks she's got only one good card to play and wants to save it for when it's really needed. If so then I have to say that I think she's wrong and the moment passed four or five years ago.
I'm not saying the Lords were saints before, but because they were disinterested and there wasn't really anything in it for them, they tended to either not bother at all or take it seriously for its own sake. Sure they could influence big deals for their own back pocket, but they weren't inspired to enact draconian laws because they'd get a chunk of cash for pitching up and then being "whipped" to vote.
Whether you regard it as class, or breeding, or just some kind of good sense and disinterest, the peers have acquitted themselves much better than our elected representatives, who really no longer represent us but rather the interests of themselves and their party. And really, for this to work properly, you do need a stronger monarch. Unfortunately, Brenda has really screwed the pooch here and I positively fear Charlie. We need a monarch who would not give Royal Assent to draconian laws, or bad laws. The ideal situation is where all three are strong, because then it's difficult for any one of them to overwhelm the others. At the moment, the party in power has a toothless opposition and the Queen just gives the nod to any old shit. In fact, she doesn't even need to rubberstamp anything, as they can now just implement a statuatory order without debate or anything. Not that there's ever any debate anyway.
Anyway, I'm rambling now. Ultimately, I didn't really have a problem with the pre-'97 constitutional monarchy, because no one group of the government had too much power. Blair screwed that completely by abolishing hereditary peerages and every other "reform" he did. Now the Commons dominates and is only held in the vaguest of check by the Lords.
Having seen any number of elected-only government models around the world, the UK's odd mixture of Crown, hereditary peer and elected thief was a very good one. If I had to endure a government, I would rather it was that one.
But what if Royal Assent was unnecessary not because the government had taken that power for Commons that it controls but because the second chamber had the tools and balls and democratic authority to stop abuse of power? Then it wouldn't matter if the monarch stayed or not, even allowing for Charles III. You could keep all the pageantry that people seem to like because the monarch would be even more of a figurehead than even now (think Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, but with corgis). There will always be people like me who feel that an appointed or appointed and hereditary Lords is outdated and lacks the accountability that an elected chamber would have, so Gordon's plan to give us just that are a good thing, yes? Er, yes and no. There'd be a few conditions.
First off, and it's not so much a condition really, I think we deserve a fucking explanation as to why it's taken Gordon so long* to remember Labour's 1997 manifesto promise to reform the House of Lords and make it accountable?
The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.Thirteen years later and more than 90 Hereditary Peers still sit in the House of Lords and no second stage of reform has taken place. Why is that, Gordon? Why, if you felt strongly enough about it to make it an election issue in your first (only?) real election contest did you not pressure the grinning mutation into keeping that pledge? Why, if you did and he told you to get lost, did you not make a public scene about it and resign? I'm fairly sure that further reform would have been seen as unnecessary once it was clear that the Parliament Act could simply be used to tame the Lords instead, and New Labour haven't been shy of doing just that. Did you think that too, Gordon? Why should we believe that you didn't think that and that this is being wheeled out in the hope of attracting enough LibDumbs to save your skins, just as in 1997? Why should we expect, if you win the election, anything more substantial than last time? As much as I support the principle of an elected upper chamber I'd want to hear those answers before I trusted anything Gordon Brown has said about it.
The system of appointment of life peers to the House of Lords will be reviewed. Our objective will be to ensure that over time party appointees as life peers more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. We are committed to maintaining an independent cross-bench presence of life peers. No one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords.
A committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform.
Now for the actual conditions. The Parliament Act has to go. It's one thing to have such a powerful piece of legislation that allows the government, in the name of the Commons of course, to force legislation through against opposition from a chamber that is not elected and therefore unaccountable. It's quite another to have that same power over a chamber that is directly elected by the country's citizens, especially if it's actually more representative than the Commons (which arguably it would be if Proportional Representation is used - more on that later). Should the Commons retain supremacy over the... well, we haven't got a name for the potential Lords replacement yet, but I'm going to refer to it as 'the Senate' partly because it's natural to think of it that way when I live in a country that really has a Senate and partly because I think people will know what I mean. So should the Commons still have supremacy over the Senate in the way that the Parliament Act provides now? No, though since the government is drawn from the Commons there should be something, just not something as overly powerful and tempting for a government as the Parliament Act. If there is to be any point in the UK having an elected second chamber then it must be able to challenge and check the power of the Commons or the Lords might as well be replaced with nothing at all. The point is that there should be the possibility of deadlock that neither House can resolve without either caving in or referring back to the citizens, i.e. a fresh election. In Australia this is known as a double dissolution - not only are all the House of Representative seats up as they are every three years, but all Senate seats too (normally Senators sit for six years with half the Senate seats determined at alternating General Elections). In the half dozen times there's been a double dissolution it's sometimes gone for the incumbent government and sometimes against them, so clearly it works as far as democracy goes**, so why not have something similar for the UK? It's probably not the only way but it does tick the main box, that in the event of irreconcilable disagreements between the two Houses it's the electorate who get to vote on it.
The one thing New Labour did get kind of right was that no one party has a majority in spite of all the placemen and cronies who've been stuffed in alongside various disgraced politicians and serial election losers, which is obviously a good thing in that the Lords isn't as easily controlled by the governing party. Put like that the hereditary mob don't sound so bad, but between them and the appointees the country is arguably over-lorded. There are now over 700, and even though nearly half rarely show up it's hard to justify an upper house - primarily a revising chamber with some prohibitions on introducing certain types of legislation, remember - with over 70 more members than the House of Commons. So how should a British Senate be different? Well, the proposal at the moment seems to be 300 sitting for fifteen years, and that's at least twice as many and twice as long as needed. Fifteen years? Fucking sinecure! Yes, there's been mention of a possible recall system to deal with the crap ones but firstly it's only a 'could be' at this point rather than an 'it must have' and secondly there are no suggestions at all on the criteria for triggering a recall ballot. What if they decide on a petition of ten million signatures? I'm exaggeratting but I hope you get the point that a recall needs to be something that the electorate can realistically hold over a Senatopeer(TM), not a vague, unrealistic and insubstantial threat. And incidentally, why the fuck isn't this being suggested as a way to deal with errant MPs (other than by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan in The Plan of course)?
Anyway, even with a decent recall procedure fifteen years is too long between elections and will not promote that accountability that Gordon's suddenly all keen on. Aussie and Yank Senators serve six year terms, which is long enough and longer than the lower Houses of either country, but isn't so long between elections that they can start to feel too secure. Whether you rotate the elections in three thirds as in the US or two halves as here probably depends on how often you want to hold a Senate election, but if you want it to be at the same time as the General Election then two halves is probably better. That would make Senatopeers sit for 8-10 years, which is still 2-4 too many if you ask me but is certainly an improvement on 12-15 and still allows the elections to be held together. And 300 of them? We've got 76 for a country of 22 million and the Americans have 100 for a country of 300 million. 300 Senatopeers is at least twice as many as needed for the UK and arguably a lot more than that, but it depends a lot on what they're the Senatopeer of. In the US it's a very simple system of two Senators per state. Here it's a dozen per state and two for each of the territories, which dovetails nicely with the election schedule since, taking this year as an example, half the twelve Victorian Senators - the six not contested in 2007 - will be up for election, along with half of those in the other states and territories (I believe the Yanks do something similar to avoid two Senators from the same state standing at the same time). Obviously that means any population comparison is a little misleading since the 200,000 or so Tasmanians elect the same number of Senators as the 4 million or so Victorians (again, similar to situations in the US) but it's still fair to ask if 300 isn't too many and what each of these 300 represent.
If it's simply population then the answer is that they represent 1/300 of the people in the UK, though it wouldn't be any particular 1/300. Like the Lords a Senate doesn't need a constituency link the way the lower House does, but if it's just a theoretical segment of the population how does any particular citizen choose which Senatopeer to contact if they're unhappy about something? By tying them to a geographical area Americans and Australians at least have a narrow field of Senators who are there to represent the state or territory they live in. If I'm bent out of shape I can copy one letter to a dozen Senators and see who responds most favourably. In the proposed UK system it could be necessary to contact all 300, and most people will throw their hands up and say fuck it. So does that mean divvying the UK up into 100 or 150 areas? Nope. For one thing I'd aim for maybe half that number of Senatopeers, but you could find alternatives to creating 50 or 75 new areas to be defined. One option would be to go by counties, though I think the minimum of two Senatopeers per area would result in an over large Senate. Another would be to use the Euro regions since they're already defined - might be controversial among those who can't bear anything even tenuously related to the EU but it would save having to define something new. That's twelve areas and would allow, well, pick an even number up to a dozen and you could have a Senate of between 24 and 144 Senatopeers. Somewhere in between seems about right - perhaps 84? Perhaps best of all PR is already used for elections in those areas so it's something people are already used to. Alternatively you could treat the UK's various countries and country-ettes as states and assign a number of Senatopeers to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each would end up with a different number but it could be made to end up with a convenient amount of Senatorpeers. Frankly I don't see that that gains much over using EU regions unless you prefer the idea of a lot of English Senators rather than some West Country Senators, some Midlands Senators and so on. It's also occurred to me that in the event of the UK pulling out of the EU (yeah, yeah, I know) some or all of the MEPs could be the first Senators. The numbers of MEPs are about right, though there'd need to be some rearranging of the numbers in each area and a means of deciding who gets only a half term and faces election first.
So we've got a representative and accountable Senate (or whatever) with the right numbers and the authority and power to act as a much needed brake on the executive, but before we even think of going for Gordon's idea the Senate needs a clear role. I believe that not only should it have the power to check the Commons but that it should be its main responsibility, and preferably that should be stated explicitly in whatever legislation is used to bring it into existence. That in turn suggests strong revising powers but little or no power to initiate legislation of its own. The Australian Senate goes partway to this but I'm not a complete fan. From Wikipedia, with my emphasis on certain points that I think a future British Senate ought to avoid.:
Although the Prime Minister, by convention, serves as a member of the House of Representatives, other ministers may come from either house, and the two houses have almost equal legislative powerAs I've mentioned a few times there is a certain Senator who seems to want Australia to join countries like China and Iran in terms of internet censorship, or at least to put in place everything necessary for future politicians to do so, and despite being in the House that is theoretically there to check government excess the guy is the bloody Communications Minister and making it fucking happen. Similarly in the UK there are serial resigners and election losers like Mandelson, Patten and the Kinnocks in the Lords, some of whom also act as Ministers. A little demarcation is needed I think. Want to be in government? Got a legislative agenda? Then aim for a Commons seat. Want to scrutinise the government and make sure it doesn't overstep its bounds and, most especially, trample on the liberties of the country's citizens? Then aim to be a Senatopeer. That's what the Senate should be about. Again, looking at Wikipedia on the Australian Senate, there are some points that I've emphasised that I think are a good guide.
As with most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, the Senate cannot introduce Appropriation Bills (bills that authorise government expenditure of public revenue) or bills that impose taxation, that role being reserved for the lower house. That degree of equality between the Senate and House of Representatives is in part due to the age of the Australian constitution – it was enacted before the confrontation in 1909 in Britain between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which ultimately resulted in the restrictions placed on the powers of the House of Lords by the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 – but also reflected the desire of the Constitution's authors to have the upper house act as a 'stabilising' influence on the expression of popular democracy (much as the colonial Legislative Councils functioned as at the time). The smaller states also desired strong powers for the Senate as a way of ensuring that the interests of more populous states as represented in the House of Representatives did not totally dominate the government.As already mentioned, the only place I disagree there is that I think there should be a much greater range of legislation that a Senate can't initiate, and possibly none at all.*** That's not to deprive them of power but to ensure that all their time and effort and power is aimed at scrutinising, and if necessary curbing, the activities of the government.
As for time and effort, Hannan and Carswell - who also feel that the Senate should initiate little or no legislation of its own - suggested that an elected upper House would need to meet three or four days a month (The Plan, p52) while the Australian Senate sits for 50-60 days a year. I'm inclined towards the higher figure since, despite Hannan and Carswell feeling that a directly elected upper House would
...bring yet more under-employed lawmakers into playkeeping a check on government excess is likely to prevent too much twiddling of thumbs in the Senate chamber. Christ, it should have been a full time job for the Commons for the last decade or so - it certainly wouldn't have left 80 or so Senatopeers with bugger all to do. For the same reason I don't think the Hannan and Carswell suggestion of seconded local councillors sitting as a Senate is desirable. Despite the appealing localist aspect a power mad government such as the UK has suffered under these last thirteen years probably needs full time scrutiny, and I think it's worth having a body just for that. But either way the role of the monarch and the failure of the current one to rein in the government, as well as the awarding of peerages and the continuing existence of hereditary peers, becomes much less important. Everything they should be good for goes into the Senate, and everything that is controversial or outdated can be removed from Parliament at the same time.
Any chance that it'll happen? I can dream but realistically I don't rate the chances of anyone paying too much attention to one blogger, especially not one that's fucked off to the other side of the world. But I've seen the benefit of a strong Senate for myself over the last few years and trust me, the Lords may have been better than nothing but a decent Senate would be far better still. The chance to get one might come loaded with another few years of Gordon bloody Brown, and frankly I'd hesitate to accept an offer of free gold if it came bundled with that twat, but if nothing else there's likely to be some debate between now and the election. Only a decisive victory for either Cameron (who probably won't want to change what's there) or Brown (who'd probably stop even the pretence of giving two tenths of a shit if he got back in with a comfortable majority) is likely to make it go away for a while. If there's a hung Parliament or a weak majority then it might, I hope, stick around for long enough that a fair number of people reach similar conclusions about what form and role a British Senate should have.
Previously, what AV can't do for Britain and what it needs to help it along.
Still to come, what Britain should avoid copying from the Australian system, and what positive things could be done to reduce apathy and increase voting.
* Yes, I know there was a debate three years ago shortly before Brown took over from Blair, but despite a vote in the Commons favouring an all elected chamber in place of the Lords nothing apart from a few reformist noises until suddenly it's back on the table along with AV elections for the Commons.
** Being democratic doesn't make it perfect of course, but to paraphrase the old cliché it's the least imperfect thing we have at the moment.
*** Finding an MP with a constituency in the same region (if that's how Senatopeer seats end up going) to be the primary sponsor of a Bill might be okay. In fact it's hard to see any practical way of preventing it if that's what individual Senators and MPs arrange between themselves. All the more reason for the Senate as a whole to have strong blocking powers.