And about time, too – replacing the House of Lords with a Senate


house of lords chamber

I’ve been looking over Ed Miliband’s proposals to replace the House of Lords with a Senate, and I have to say: I’m pretty impressed.

Lords reform is one of the great pieces of unfinished business left behind by the last Labour government. We’ve been stuck with the halfway-house solution of 92 hereditary peers and an ever-growing number of life peers since 1999, and it doesn’t really fit. Successive Prime Ministers have added to its bloated membership (none more quickly than David Cameron), and it is high time that someone dealt with this undemocratic blight on our constitution.

So yes, I do rather welcome a firm commitment from Ed that a Labour government would take such action.

The Lib Dems, predictably, are not amused. They reckon this is their issue, and that Labour conspired with the Tories to kill it off. Nick Clegg’s proposals, though, were not ideal. 15 year terms for elected members is, I would suggest, a terrible idea, and scarcely any better than peers appointed for life.

I also like the idea of regionally elected senators — from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the nine regions of England. These regions are woefully underused in our politics, and regular readers will know that I favour elected Regional Assemblies.

So with the proposals still needing fleshing out in terms of detail, here are my humble suggestions:

  • Proportional Representation — This, really, is essential. The mess that is Police & Crime Commissioners shows that bloated constituencies don’t work on a non-proportional system, and the best way of doing this is with a list system, elected on some form of proportional representation. The advantage that this would have is that it would allow smaller parties into the legislature, and (hopefully) more of a consensus-style of politics, given that it would be hard for any one party to achieve a majority in a proportionally elected senate.
  • Reasonable length terms, elected in sections — a six year term elected in three tranches every two years seems appropriate to me, but the actual numbers are less important than the idea. If the new Senate is to be a check on the Commons, then its electoral cycle should be different. Electing in thirds would also mean that the effect of landslides would be mitigated, meaning that any one party could not override the system.
  • Ex Officio seats for regional leaders — this I can see being a little contentious, but if the First Ministers of devolved administrations (including, potentially, any regional assemblies established) were given ex officio seats in the new senate (perhaps non-voting), then it would help retain the links to central government, whilst at the same time devolving power. A partnership arrangement, so to speak.
  • Actual power — This is key, and hopefully doesn’t need to actually be said, but the new Senate would have to have all the powers of the House of Lords at present. This cannot be an exercise in hobbling the upper house to increase the power of the Commons. Additionally, the parliamentary convention that Prime Ministers have to come from the Commons would need to end — it is based on the superior democratic legitimacy of the Commons, which would obviously be at an end with an elected chamber.

I’m sure many will disagree (and please do; that’s what the comments are for), and that I will refine my position over time, but I am intensely excited that we’re seeing some actual constitutional radicalism. I may be a political nerd, and have enjoyed public law lectures a little too much at university, but this would be a way of knocking down some of the barriers between people and their government/legislature, and at the same time striking a blow against the perception of inequality ingrained in the system.

It gives another clear reason to vote Labour in 2015, and promises a radical government of reform if Ed Miliband gets to No10. And for that reason, and many more besides, I sincerely hope that he does.

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