Special Feature: Lords or Senators

(Editor: A month and three days after our last sign of life, after exams, and a series of pitiless whippings, The Liberal Cynics return. I leave you now to the skill of Jake Scott.)


On the 31st of October, 2014, Ed Miliband revived an old political question that had been bubbling beneath the surface of British politics for the last five years – should the House of Lords be reformed? Miliband’s answer to this question was a reversion to the old Labour-left’s absolutist line, to remove the unelected second chamber, and replace it with a fully elected Senate. See below their manifesto pledge:

“Labour is committed to replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, to represent every part of the United Kingdom, and to improve the democratic legitimacy of the second chamber.”[1]

Ed Miliband’s claim rested on the belief that the second chamber does not represent the majority of the United Kingdom. He is quoted saying that “though the North West of England has the same population as London, it has nowhere near as many peers.” Though the Labour party ultimately cannot claim a mandate now for this pledge, and the question has somewhat been put to rest, it by no means prevents us from discussing the proposals for such a chamber, and what this would mean.

For those readers unfamiliar with the House of Lords, it is an unelected second chamber in the United Kingdom’s Parliament, composed of Lords drawn from hereditary peers, life peers, and Lords Spiritual. The political power of the House of Lords is different to that of the House of Commons; once a bill has passed through the various committees of the Commons, it is then given to the Lords to review and scrutinise. Through the scrutiny process, the Lords may scrutinise a bill for a maximum of two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year, before they are then asked to either pass the bill forward, veto the bill, or return it to the Commons for review – a veto is rarely used, if ever. An exception to this are money bills (those bills concerning taxation) that must be initiated in the Commons, not the Lords, and can only be held up in scrutiny for one month.

Over time, certain Parliament Acts have reduced the spectrum of bills that the Lords can restrict from passing forward to the Queen to sign and pass into law; this process of bypassing the Lords has been termed Royal Assent, and though the monarch no longer has the power to reject democratically reliant bills that are passed to them, this is a process essential for the prevalence of the Commons over the Lords, to prevent a bill given the democratic legitimacy from passing. Furthermore, the Salisbury Convention provides what is known as the political mandate to those electoral promises made in the governing party’s manifesto; once that manifesto promise has passed through the Commons, there is nothing the Lords can do about it.

The social democratic movement that has transformed British politics over the last century has aimed at nothing less than the removal of unelected figures holding political power, including the monarchy. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, no one in the modern period wishes for the reverse – an undemocratic, unelected government deciding our laws for us. It is clear to see then why the Labour party pushes so hard for this removal of unelected elements of our government.

The argument however doesn’t seem to be about what to do with the House of Lords itself – especially since most parties support reform and change – but what to replace it with. The Conservative Party, ever the bulwark of tradition, has suggested commissions and committees to review the peerage proposals put forward by the Prime Minister to the Queen before the Queen approves them, while Labour’s suggestion of a Senate seems the logical extension of their thinking. After all, a unicameral system dominated by a single party granted the authority of democratic legitimacy would surely result in one-sided bills (minus the extensive review process of the various committees in the Commons).

This article aims not at discussing the House of Lords, but the Senate proposal of the Labour Party during the 2015 General Election, what this would mean constitutionally, comparing the United Kingdom system to other Senatorial systems, and if this could produce a more representative second chamber, as Miliband seemed to so heavily imply.

Firstly, the removal of the House of Lords and replacing it with a Senate would fundamentally change the style of politics we would be used to in this country; there would need to be serious decisions made regarding its election process, its term length, where it sits (as Miliband suggested moving it out of London in the anti-London mood of the campaign) and other concerns. For lack of education on the writer’s half regarding other parliamentary systems, the United States will serve as our point of reference; in the US, the Senate is made up of essentially three thirds that each face election every six years. This means, therefore, that there is a Senatorial election every 2 years, though this coincides with the midterm elections of the House of Representatives in which the whole house faces re-election. Two differences must be brought to light here with the UK system – the first being that the US relies heavily on a strict election timetable. Presidential elections must happen every four years, the Representatives must be elected every two years, and one third of the Senate must be elected every two. This is just national government; there are gubernatorial, local, mayoral and many more elections that must be accounted for. The second difference is something of a product of the first; the United States’ daily life is saturated so heavily with politics that to us it is almost overwhelming in its totality. In the United Kingdom, we experience political involvement on a much lower consistency; a General Election every four or five years, the odd by-election and European Parliament elections every five years will do us just fine. To the Yanks, this is almost disengaged!

Until 2011, with the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, our elections were not quite so timetabled – we have generally followed a four/five year guideline, but it usually up to the leader of the governing party when it is called. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011) has since created a five-year schedule to the length of a governing party’s term. The doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty must be remembered here – no Parliament may ever restrict another’s actions. A change in governance could see this act repealed. For the foreseeable future, however, this Act is likely to stay. Working on this assumption, we can probably assume a similar rule for a Senate, that they would be restricted to five years per term. This would mean the election for the Senate would be held at the same time as the General Election, presumably; however, statistically Brits don’t turn out to non-General Elections as much.

In the period from 2000 to 2015, the average voter turnout for General Elections was 63%[2], while the average for By-Elections – elections that still mean as much in Parliamentary terms as the General Election – in the 2000 to 2012 period was 43%[3]. From 1999 to 2014, the European Parliament Election turnout has averaged at 32.85%[4]. The 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner election in 2012 had a national average turnout of 15%[5] – as low as 12% in Staffordshire, the lowest turnout. Now, not to say anything bad about the British electorate, but the turnout to what are frequently seen as “extra” elections are clearly not as high as the General Election. These statistics, while long and arguably dull, suggest that, to raise the turnout, the Senate election would “piggyback” onto the General Election. This can result in some problems; would we see a rise in “donkey votes” in which voters purposefully or ignorantly spoil the ballot? Would most voters simply vote for the same party as their local MP? More importantly, how would the Senate be divided across the country? Would it simply follow constituency lines, or would we see regional representatives akin to the European Parliament? The Labour Party’s phrasing, a “Senate for the Nations and Regions of the United Kingdom” suggest the latter.

The main risk with timetabling the election at the same time as the General Election, as pointed out above, is a party-style alignment in voting behaviour. Though split-ticket voting has been steadily rising over the last twenty years, we can likely assume this is because voters desire different styles of government at different levels of government. A Senate would not provide this outlet; since it would operate at the same national level as the House of Commons, we can likely assume that voters would vote based on their national concerns, which is currently reflected in the House of Commons’ composition. Compared to the House of Lords, this would be a major downfall for a Senate; one of the strengths of the House of Lords is its independence, or at least its supposed independence. Though roughly two thirds of the Lords identify with a party affiliation, they are intended to act as independent of partisan politics. A Senate would arguably not be. Perhaps the Labour Party would have proposed that all Senators must be politically independent of parties, a suggestion for which we could have only hoped.

Now we come to the crux of the matter; would a Senate create a more representational, democratically legitimate body than the House of Lords? My personal belief is that it wouldn’t be. If my assumption above that the Senate would be elected based on a similar process to the House of Commons is correct, we can probably assume a similar outcome to that of the Commons; a bias in favour of white males. Whether you consider this an institutional problem, a product of democratic desires, or even not a bad thing, it is a fact. My personal belief is that if the current democratic body of the United Kingdom cannot produce a truly representative body, then a second one would not succeed where the first has failed.

Finally, I would like to consider practise; in the United States, the terror of political gridlock is an omnipresent threat. With both houses claiming democratic legitimacy, and therefore the ability to propose, vote on, veto or generally block each other’s actions, the US government constantly faces shutdowns and stagnation. If an elected body was to be in place in the United Kingdom, would it not produce a similar outcome? It is of course difficult for us to say yes or no, but based on the US experience, I’m inclined to say yes. Usually this gridlock can be overcome through Executive Actions, as the President can force Congress – not literally, mind – to act. In the UK, such an institution does not exist; the executive body of Parliament is drawn from the Commons, and is made up of the Leader of the governing party and his or her chosen ministers. This severely undermines the potential for gridlock to exist, but skews the bias so much in the Commons’ favour that the effective existence of a Senate would be questionable. Plus, regardless of party affiliation, it is hard for anyone to really desire David Cameron running this country from the cosy safety of Number 10 by himself.

In conclusion, an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions of the United Kingdom is not an appealing alternative to the House of Lords. The possibility for partisanship to undermine the doctrine of an independent second chamber, free of party discipline, seems too great to ignore, and the electoral legitimacy of both chambers would result only in gridlock if the two chambers were dominated by opposing parties. However, if the two chambers were dominated by one party, there exists the potential for the Prime Minister to be able to push bills through almost completely unopposed.

[1] Labour Party Manifesto, 2015, page 64

[2] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/nov/16/uk-election-turnouts-historic

[4] http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm

[5] http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/154353/PCC-Elections-Report.pdf


Jake Scott

Special Reports


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