What do you do with a problem called the House of Lords? Targeted by New Labour because it is unelected and undemocratic, and if the truth be known because it is too independent and an obstacle to their agenda, they have attempted to reform it but have in fact deformed it. The hereditary Peers, the major irritant of the Left, have been slashed to a rump while the appointed life Peers have been stuffed with Labour cronies. Many of these new Peers are the result of patronage and many are unelected Labour politicians, such as Adonis, Kinnock and Mandelson, rewarded with Government positions. The democratic deficit persists and the next steps are to remove the Law Lords as part of the creation of the Supreme Court and the Lords Spiritual as part of the plan for an elected upper House. Labour find it galling that on occasions the unelected Lords have been more in tune with public opinion and able to amend, defeat or stall Government Bills. Labour’s reforms are in fact a threat to our democracy. For twelve years Labour’s plans to reform the Lords have distracted attention away from the need to reform the House of Commons.
Laws must be just and free from errors. In this respect the scrutiny and revising functions of the Lords are deemed to be their major role; a role enhanced by the experience of the Lords who tend to be on the elderly side and also by the inclusion of Bishops and Judges. Of course this role would not be necessary if the Commons did their job properly. There are concerns that major legislation is being launched by the Government in the Lords now that unelected Cabinet and Junior Ministers are sitting in the Lords; and important moral legislation and amendments are being proposed by unelected Peers such as Joffe and Falconer.
Before deciding what needs to be done about the House of Lords we need to be clear about what we want the Lords to do. We also need to be clear about what the House of Commons should be. We are certain about the latter and have set out our agenda in the Resurgence party programme. The House of Commons must have primacy over the House of Lords because it is the directly elected House of Representatives of the People. It is the legitimate part of the Legislature and must be separate from the Executive Government. All legislation must be first introduced in the Commons and Government Ministers must be summonsable and the servants of the Commons who are themselves the servants of the People.
Labour’s proposals for an elected House of Lords will undermine the primacy of the Commons. If the Lords are directly elected by the People they will be a duplicate of the Commons and compete for primacy. A suggestion for an indirectly elected upper House that is worth serious consideration would entail the overall vote at a general election deciding the proportion and number of Lords to be nominated by each political party. This suggestion could be taken further with the proportion of people who have not voted being represented by existing cross-benchers on the basis of seniority. The House of Lords would continue as a revising chamber.
With the exception of the existing cross-benchers the Lords would be highly politicised and as members would owe their position to the party they would be heavily whipped. This could actually be the worst of all options. It could also result in youngsters with no life experience being placed in the Lords. This is also a concern with the Commons and a minimum age requirement should be introduced; say 28 for the Commons and 42/49 for the Lords.
So we come to the crucial issue; how do we separate the Executive and the Legislature? And, where do we put the Government? We are proposing a separate election for our Representatives in the Commons and a separate election for the government. We would make it simple by having the elections on an alternating basis with fixed terms of four years. This would result in national elections every two years. These would coincide with existing local elections to minimise cost. Election to the Commons would retain the existing single member constituencies.
Election of the government would be proportional of the total national vote. The whole country would be a single constituency and people would vote for a list of candidates headed by the party leader. Only party candidates on the list would be eligible for ministerial appointment and the list would cut off proportionate to the national vote.
What about the opposition parties? Their shadow ministers and spokesmen would be appointed from their party lists. It would not be like a presidential election where the defeated party fade away. They would engage in debate with the government and would be a government in waiting. Where would those debates take place? It would have to be a Chamber of State. Perhaps an existing institution that is not at present open to the public, something like the Privy Council. The alternative option would be to do away with the House of Lords as a revising chamber and move the government in to the upper House. This would be appropriate as the people comprising the government like to lord it over the rest of us. How big would the Chamber be? It would be smaller than the existing chambers and of a size to provide a supply of Ministers. It would not exceed 300 seats or one seat for every 100,000 electors.
If we elect the government on the basis of their share of the national vote instead of the number of MPs they have in the House of Commons it is likely that we will always have a minority government. This reflects the absolute reality of our situation. The positive effect of our existing elections system is that it results in strong government or rule by the minority. This is not what the people want, or that is what the LibDems tell us as they pursue their aim of proportional representation. Most of the time since WWII they would have held the balance of power and been able to have their manifesto implemented in return for supporting one or other of the more popular parties. So the smallest party would be the tail wagging the dog. This happens on the Continent and at present in Ireland the Green Party is keeping Fianna Fail in power.
In order to see how it might work in the UK in the future we can look back and see how it might have worked in past general elections, if the government had been formed on the percentage of votes cast. The Great Election of 1945 would have had the same result of a Labour coalition government resulting from a 59.9% share of the vote. The Liberals were part of that coalition in 1945 but stood separately in 1950, when they held the balance of power [Labour coalition 46.4%, Conservatives 43.5% & Liberals 9.1%]. If the Liberals had joined with the Conservatives there would not have been the second Labour government. The likelihood is that they would have supported Labour with the same end result except that there would not have been a necessity for the 1951 General Election and the Conservatives would have had to wait for 1955 and power.
In the actual 1951 election [Labour 48.7%, Conservatives 48% & Liberals 2.5%] resulted in an actual Conservative victory but if the Liberals had joined with Labour on a proportional basis it would also have resulted in a further Labour term.
That bring us to the interesting 1955 General election [Labour 46.36%, Conservatives 49.84% & Liberals 2.7%]. Even if the Liberals had joined with Labour giving a total of 49.06%, the Conservatives would still have won but they both had less than 50%. In that election Sinn Fein had 1.1% of the vote and the balance of power. It is likely that they could have wrung concessions from Labour and joined a coalition government. When in power they might have altered the situation in Northern Ireland and avoided the Troubles arising from the nationalist civil liberties deficit and all the resulting violence. However, Sinn Fein was unseated on petitions and replaced by the Ulster Unionists who would have supported the Conservative government. This is a classic example of a disadvantage of proportional representation.
It was close again in 1959 [Labour 43.8%, Conservatives 49.4% & Liberals 5.9%] when the Conservatives actually won. One independent Conservative [0.9%] held the balance of power and could have wrung concessions from the Conservative government out of all proportion to his electoral support.
Labour actually won the 1964 election [Labour 44.1%, Conservatives 43.4% & Liberals 11.2%]. The Liberals would have held the balance of power and could have sold their support to the highest bidder and could also have brought down a coalition government at any time. The same situation would have arisen in 1966 but Labour would still have needed the support of Republican Labour and the result would have been the same Labour victory.
In 1970, 1974 Feb’and 1974 Oct’ the Liberals would have held the balance of power. The same would have applied in 1979 when a combined Labour and Liberal government would have kept Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives out of power.
In 1983 and 1987 the situation would have been more complicated as the Labour Party was faced with the split and creation of the Social Democratic Party. The Conservatives won in 1983 [Conservative 42.4%, Labour 27.6%, Liberal 13.8% & SDP 11.6%] but a Lab-SDP- Lib coalition could have kept the Conservatives out of power. The reality was that Labour had swung so far to the left that any coalition would have been very fragile. An identical situation would have applied in 1987 when the Conservatives won [Conservatives 42.22%, Labour 30.83%, Liberal 12.8% & SDP 9.8%].
In 1992 and every subsequent general election the LibDems would have held the balance of power. John Major could have lost in 1992 and Tony Blair could have been blocked by a grand coalition, including the Nationalist parties, in 1997. General elections in 2001 and 2005 would have resulted in coalition governments.
The problem with coalition government is that the more parties involved, the harder it is to keep the coalition together for a full term of a Parliament. This is likely to result in more frequent general elections because they cannot complete a full term. The Nationalist parties become more important in sustaining the coalition, but they are voting on issues that might only apply to England. This is very unpopular. Since 1999 there has been a growth in UK wide small parties and they are more likely to participate in general elections if they are held under a proportional system of voting. This was very evident during this year’s European Parliament election when nineteen parties contested the election.
There are two types of coalition. The first is created after the election when horse trading takes place. The second is created before the election, as in 1945 and 1951. The second is fairer for the voters as they know what they are voting for. Both of these options result in ministerial positions being shared with the partner parties.
The Scottish National Party has shown that it is possible to govern as a minority administration and function for a fixed term in the Scottish parliament. On this basis there is no need to share ministerial positions and a fluid situation applies where support has to be garnered on an issue by issue basis. This is hard work and acts as a brake on extreme policy implementation.
If the idea of minority government does not appeal there is a solution. Apply the alternative vote system with second votes being transferred until one party gets 50% + 1. Go a step further with a box for NONE OF THE ABOVE.
What do you think? All constructive comments will be carefully considered.