The case for a second Chamber

For over 100 years, the need to reform the Upper House of the UK Parliament, the House of Lords, has been mooted.  Sometimes vocally, sometimes as a muttered threat.  Governments of both hues have come and gone, attempts have been made, and the Lords continue to live to fight another day.  It, rather than we, appears to have discovered the secret of eternal life.

Tony Blair had most success in noising it up, but he managed, either on purpose or by compromise, to replace one tribe of unelected, unrepresentative members with a different set.  His shift to appointees has been seized upon with glee by the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, who has since coming to power in 2010, stuffed the red benches with his own cronies – 117 of them to be exact.

And yet, for all the faults in its DNA, the House of Lords does and has served a purpose.  During the welfare reform bill, when Tory MPs could see no evil, Lib Dem MPs would not hear of any evil, and Labour MPs lost the power to speak out about such evil, charities and organisations turned to the Lords.  They found a willing audience.  Indeed, the most remarkable moment of drama during the passage of the bill was crafted by a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

As the architect of the Child Support Agency in Thatcher’s Government, it was he who led the charge against the worst aspects of the coalition government’s changes, not least that parents with care will have to pay a hefty ransom to have maintenance calculated, collated and paid.  Taking the mouths from babes was never so apt.   His partner at arms, Lord Newton, a former Social Security Minister in the Tory Government, said at the time:  “The proposition … that, if it is not practicable [to make private voluntary arrangements] people should be charged for getting justice and reasonable support for their children, is bordering on the indefensible.”  We all cheered, if somewhat discombobulated at having to rely on their Lord and Ladyships to inject a dollop of fairness into the debate on the future of welfare.

Over the years, the Lords has played its role with aplomb in holding the upstarts over the corridor to account, especially when unassailable majorities meant that opposition was muted on measures that did not stand up to scrutiny.  But, it is still a crony club, and is an anachronism in any modern legislature.

Needless to say, like ferrets in a sack, the cross-party Joint committee of Lords and MPs cannot agree on what a future second Chamber should look like.  Agreeing on the voting system for the purported 80% elected Chamber appears to have been beyond them.  The Committee (or rather, the majority of members who support an elected Chamber at all) “agrees with the government’s proposal for election under the STV system.”  Uninvited, it adds its own views on how to make this work: “in addition, it recommends that voters who wish to vote for candidates by political party rather than individually should be free to do so. The Committee recommends that the STV system currently used in New South Wales should be adopted. This allows voters not only to rank individual candidates, but to vote by party and also to rank the parties so as to control where “excess” party votes are allocated.”  Should be fun.

Of course, for many up here, such wrestling with voting systems and other niceties all seems a tad irrelevant.  As one of the opponents of any reform, Lord Hennessy, pointed out, such deliberations are pointless until after 2014 when Scotland might not be part of the Parliament, and new calculations on numbers and the like might be required.  Many of us don’t care about the Lords because many of us don’t expect to be around to witness its new dawn.

Which begs the question?  Given that it’s taken 100 years and more to come up with a rather imperfect design for a revising chamber upon which everyone has a different opinion, will we be able to come up with something better for independent Scotland?

Yes.  If it’s down to the SNP, there won’t be one.

Policy on such matters is a bit of a moveable feast of late and certainly, the party acknowledges that it is for the Scottish Parliament, post a yes vote, to draft a new constitution for independent Scotland, but according to its draft text for a written constitution, last revised by the late Sir Neil MacCormick, “the Parliament of Scotland shall be a single-chamber Parliament“, to be elected by single-transferable vote.

I used to support this.  But recent events suggest that a second, revising chamber might not be a bad idea.  We might want a second opinion further down the line on controversial proposals and legislation.  Right now, none of us can ever envisage a Scottish Government wanting to privatise the NHS, but things, and times change.  Imagine if we had our very own version of the ConDems railroading through health service reforms that no-one voted for?  Wouldn’t we want brakes to be applied by a revising chamber?

Moreover, until it happened, none of us reckoned on a single party winning a majority under the partially proportionate voting system we have.  Supposing the SNP, happy as it is with having found the formula to break the electoral bank, decides against changing the voting system for the Parliament in our brave, new independent world?  While STV should ensure that no one party dominates the others (and who knows what parties we might have once we’ve all got used to independence and political re-alignments have occurred), but what if we proceed beyond 2016 with the current mix of first past the post and additional vote?  We could, yet again, have a majority government.  In such an instance, a second chamber – a Senate? – might be viewed as a necessary check and balance rather than another costly democratic layer of governance, that many presume it to be.

We might not want what they’ve got, with all its imperfections and the headaches caused by trying to create a modern structure fit for purpose, but when you consider the problems that might arise in independent Scotland from only having a single Parliamentary chamber, suddenly the case for a second one becomes much more compelling.

8 thoughts on “The case for a second Chamber

  1. Pingback: Why family norms result in inequity and inequality for children | A Burdz Eye View

  2. The House of Lords being the last vanguard against the Welfare Reform Bill was not, in my eyes, proof of the necessity of a second chamber; rather, it was an example of the failures of using First Past The Post to elect your parliamentarians. In truth, a second chamber merely impedes the democratically-elected government from progressing the manifesto on which the voters elected them. If the Scottish voters choose to elect a majority SNP government, then that’s our prerogative. Surely a better solution to ensuring future governments cannot “steamroller” legislation is to make 50% the maximum number of MSPs a party can attain? In fact, given that we’re so often reminded that the SNP only actually got 45% of the total votes, then what we really need is more proportionality. Again, on the rare occasions that an actual majority of voters votes for one party, then clearly they liked the look of the manifesto to such an extent that they voted I overwhelming numbers, and so we are actually demanding that it is carried out in full.

    Quite simply, as with just about every single issue you can think of, the question you have to ask is “how do the Nordic countries do it?” The answer is that they are all unicameral parliaments. Most people (not accusing the Burd of this) assume the need for a second chamber based on little more than the fact one exists in the UK, as well as the only other democracy (or is that “democracy”?) people know about, the USA. Sometimes, I think the second question we should ask on any issue is “how do the UK and USA do it?” and then do the opposite…

    I think the simple fact there seems to be no way of making the House of Lords 100% elected without leading to a whole new batch of problems is a pretty good indicator that the question should not be “how do we reform the Lords?” but “why do we even need the Lords?”

  3. A second chamber providing oversight is essential. But it needs balance. Some seats should be “awarded”, but for a fixed term, and drawn from all areas of society, including business, Armed Forces, civil service, members of the public etc.

    • I you’ve reinvented the Irish Senate. Works so well and is so incredibly popular that it’s likely to be abolished.

  4. When you wax lyrical about the Lords’ and the Welfare Reform Bill, remember two things. The Commons just ignored them. And any karma they gained for that has to be set aside Foulkes, Forsyth and Fraser’s performance on the Scotland Bill. Fortunately, once again, the Commons ignored them.

  5. Are these necessarily arguments *for* a second chamber? Could they equally not be arguments *against* a disfunctional first chamber?

    “We need the Lords because the Commons is so dreadful”.

    Well, fix the Commons then.

  6. Compulsory preferential voting means your vote gets transferred and the third most popular party has a chance of getting up.
    Even if you as a voter would never support them.

    Optional preferential voting as in Queensland means unless you CHOOSE to allow your vote to be transferred to a party you would not vote for then they do not get your vote.
    In Queensland the Greens get less than 10% and get nowhere, whereas in NSW they are threatening in quite a few seats on transfered votes.

    In Dennison in Tasmania a guy who was coming third with about 20% won on similar preferences; not sure that is democracy.
    I imagine the LibDems would much prefer the NSW system to the QLD one as their percentage in the UK and the Greens in Oz is similar these days!

  7. Compulsoty preferential voting menas your vote gets transferred and the third most popular party has a chance of getting up.
    Even if you as a voter would never support them.

    Optional preferential voting as in Queensland means unless you CHOOSE to allow your vote to be transferred to a party you would not vote for then they do not get your vote.
    In Queensland the Greens get less than 10% and get nowhere, whereas in NSW they are threatening in quite a few seats on transfered votes.

    In Dennison in Tasmania a guy who was coming third with about 20% won on similar preferences; not sure that is democracy.
    I imagine the LibDems would much prefer the NSW system to the QLD one as their percentage in the UK and the Greens in Oz is similar these days!

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