Replace the House of Lords with a House of Losers

Posted on February 2, 2012

Less than a year after their walloping in the AV referendum, the Lib Dems are pushing for constitutional change again. Their obsession with their hobby horse regardless of its electoral irrelevance has led them to resemble a bluebottle banging its head against a window, desperate to move ahead despite the battering it gets from its repeated failure.

This time it is House of Lords reform that forms their windowpane of choice . Supposedly, Clegg is demanding that it is prioritised in the Coalition’s legislative programme.

They will face all sorts of problems – the question of whether there should be a referendum on constitutional changes (A: Yes), the question of whether we should be discussing this while the economy is struggling (A: No) and most importantly the question of what a new House of Lords should look like (A: Who knows?)

This last question is the most important – even the Lib Dems, who have thought about little else for the last 50 years, haven’t agreed on an answer. Should it be 100% elected, or partially elected and partially selected experts? Should it be done by STV, a list system, AV or another PR electoral technique? How long should the terms be, and how great should the powers of the chamber be? For that matter, should it be called the Lords, or the Senate or something else?

Personally, I do think Britain should have an elected Upper Chamber. It is perverse to have an unelected, unaccountable chamber disrupting and sabotaging the work of a legislature elected by the people.

I emphatically do not think we should be prioritising Lords reform now, however. People want the economy boosted, and growth restored – if we had a proper system for initiating popular referenda, I strongly doubt we would see Lords reform jumping to the top of the list.

However, if the Lib Dems insist on changing it now, what should the new Lords look like?

For a start, I’d prefer to keep calling it the Lords, because I’m a bit sentimental like that. “Senates” and so on all sound a bit trendy, which is one thing Westminster definitely isn’t.

So how should we select it? The system would need to satisfy several requirements:

– it would need to be in keeping with the verdict from last year’s AV referendum that the people have no truck for obscure forms of PR (no matter how much the Lib Dems may love them)

– it would need to be affordable and efficient

– it would be important that it did not have a claim to greater legitimacy than the Commons

– it would be pointless if it simply produced a second house identical in makeup to the Commons

– if possible, it would be good if it did something to answer the concerns people have about votes being wasted in the First Past the Post system, while maintaining a constituency link where possible

I have a proposal that would fit each of these criteria. We fill the House of Lords with all those who come second in elections to the House of Commons – a “House of Losers”, if you will.

Let’s test it against the above criteria. We continue to use the First Past the Post system, which the people clearly don’t want to get rid of. We wouldn’t need to spend anything extra on holding another wave of elections. There would be no challenge to the legitimacy of the Commons, given that those on the green benches would have beaten the red benches at a general election. The new Lords would be a counterbalance to the Commons in their political makeup, providing for energetic scrutiny. Finally, millions of votes currently viewed by many as “wasted” on candidates who come second would in fact count for something – dramatically upping the proportion of voters who get a representative they voted for.

The important thing would be to get the powers of this new House of Losers right. Too little, and it would become redundant as a scrutineering chamber, too great and it would deliver gridlock. But that goes for any reform of the Lords – at least under this system we wouldn’t waste a fortune and we would improve the proportionality of our Parliamentary democracy.

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Categories: Opinion, Politics, Westminster

16 Responses

  1. Paul Perrin:

    Close, but no cigar. The people who come ‘second’ could have done so with almost half a constituencies votes or with just a handful!

    Losers could have a place – if 2nd chamber was populated based in proportion to national vote for each party – candidates selected from each party in order of ‘most popular loser’.

    Without some form of PR, a popular party with out a geographical concentration (such as UKIP) will still be unable to represent its supporters in parliament.

    27.02.2012 14:10 Reply

  2. Nick:

    “It is perverse to have an unelected, unaccountable chamber disrupting and sabotaging the work of a legislature elected by the people.” That’s what the Parliament Act’s for.

    All the arguments you give show why we should keep it exactly as it is – it’s time to put pragmatism before the blind worship of “democracy”. Just because the upper chamber occasionally votes in a manner with which you disagree, it doesn’t mean its complete composition should be changed – disagreeing with the government is what it’s there for.

    The fact is the Lords already does its job in a perfectly satisfactory manner – certainly better than the US Senate or any other upper chamber chosen by the same electorate as the lower one.

    Leave it to do its job and if it does keep frustrating the government then just use the Parliament Act. All will be well.

    27.02.2012 14:27 Reply

  3. Nick:

    Personally, I do think Britain should have an elected Upper Chamber. It is perverse to have an unelected, unaccountable chamber disrupting and sabotaging the work of a legislature elected by the people.


    No. Lets get rid of them completely.

    1. They are corrupt. They are getting state secrecy certificates signed by David Beamish, the Clerk of Parliament to cover up the corruption. I’ve had 3 signed by him, plus another by his predecessor.

    2. What we need is direct control over politicians.

    Lets save 150 million a year by abolishing them.

    We can replace it with a cheap form of direct democracy. Referenda by proxy. You nominate an MP, any MP as your proxy. Completely separate from your constituency MP. Proxy votes determine the passing of a bill. This takes an additional field on voter registration. Currently that costs 100 million a year. 1 extra field – 20 million. Net savings 130 million a year.

    Now MPs are under direct control. If you don’t like your proxy, because they are a crook, change your proxy. With no proxy votes, that MP is impotent.

    All it takes is for one MP to set up a website allow individuals to vote, if they so desire, and they are completely under our control.

    One additional rule. No borrowing without approval. No taxation without approval. No spending without saying who pays.

    27.02.2012 15:11 Reply

  4. A Williams:

    There is another alternatives that our professional politicians like to pretend does not exist.
    The House of Lords could be replaced by a House of Jurors, selected by lot in the same manner as juries in a court of law. They could serve for fixed durations but with only a fixed proportion of the members replaced each year so that the house in never filled with only new members. It would fill the second chamber with a healthy cross-section of people from all walks of life with varied skills and experience, certainly more than our current crop of MPs and Lords.

    If we elect members to the Lords, we create a copy of the House of Commons, even if we use the proposed 2nd place “silver medallist” approach, and will create two elected chambers, both with a Political Mandate for Power. Instead using a similar selection method as appointing people for jury service is a far more effective and truly democratic solution.

    The Bills could be put before the Chamber by its sponsors and opponents from the first chamber. A House of Jurors would give everyone eligible for jury service a chance to serve their country and would also get more people interested in the political process if there is a chance, no matter how remote, of them being able to take an active role in the legislation process.

    Before any elitist complaints are made about such people chosen by lot not being up to the job of reviewing the legislation, first bear in mind this is exactly the way we decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused in our law courts, and second take another look at the quality of our MPs who vote on the legislation in the first place.

    Lastly it is right that the best people to review proposed legislation are those who will have to live under the proposed new laws, especially since our MPs and Lords have a habit of making themselves exempt from such legislation.

    27.02.2012 15:16 Reply

    • Mick Anderson:

      Seconded. The last thing this Country needs is more politicians, but we do need more Electoral control over the system.

      I also suggest a minimum age (50ish) to ensure that anyone called has sufficient life experience, that it be an opt-in system (you have to volunteer), and to exclude anyone who has already held political office.

      28.02.2012 08:59 Reply

      • Alex Young:

        The problem with an age requirement is that the house would then be biased on age-related issues, like pension reforms.

        28.02.2012 09:48 Reply

        • Mick Anderson:

          All the older people I know put the welfare and future of their children and grandchildren before their own. Perhaps that’s part of the wisdom I would want them in there for!

          01.03.2012 17:08 Reply

  5. Ian Eiloart:

    The state of the economy is completely irrelevant to this issue. Of course fixing the economy is more important, but you don’t run the world by picking the most important problem, fixing it, and then moving on to the next most important problem. Sometimes you have to fix a problem when you have the opportunity.

    We must give credit to Labour for fixing the judicial issue, by creating the supreme court. That means that we don’t have to worry about what to do with the law lords. They also got rid of most of the hereditaries, so resistance should be a bit reduced from that quarter.

    This is a centuries old problem, and this could be the only opportunity to fix it for the next few decades. For example, majority governments love to fix the Lords problem by stuffing the Lords with their own members. It may turn out that only a coalition government can fix the problem, for that reason.

    27.02.2012 15:21 Reply

  6. Denis Cooper:

    Great idea.

    27.02.2012 16:25 Reply

  7. John Duckett:

    I have also thought of a second house picked entirely from the public. My thoughts were that one person picked at random from each constituency,each person should be between 30 and65 years old and in gainful employment. Pay them the going rate for Lord’s expenses, for most members that would be a pay rise.Those living within the London commuter belt have their train fare paid, those outside can have a Government owned flat. 20% of them retire each year so there is always a large number of experienced members there. The benefit is that ordinary people instead of self serving, failed politicians have a say in running the country.

    27.02.2012 16:52 Reply

  8. David Hadley:

    Yes, either the runners up, or some sort of election from a list of notable people or something like that.

    However, I think a major part of any second house’s duty should be to check over legislation – say 5 – 10 years after it was introduced – to see if it is working as intended, and if not what changes should be made.

    so much legislation ends up making things worse through unintended consequences and there does seem a need for some sort of automatic scrutiny of it all.

    27.02.2012 16:59 Reply

  9. Alex Young:

    I don’t think it’s “perverse” to have an unelected second House at all. Unaccountable, that’s a problem, but unelected is, I think, essential. It is more important that the selection process, whatever it is, is as uncorrelated as possible with the selection process for the lower House. Both Houses are otherwise likely to make the same mistakes. In that respect, hereditary peerages are actually better than our current political gifting system in that they’re effectively a random selection (with an acknowledged bias towards historical wealth), but I don’t think they’re likely to come back.

    The simplest thing that can possibly work is a House of Jurors. The problem is that nobody (to my knowledge) has ever tried anything like it, so getting support for it as a concept would be nigh on impossible.

    I don’t think a House of Losers can work without gridlock. I don’t think that’s a matter of tuning the parameters, I think it’s fundamental to the concept. Either you have a House that’s powerful enough to force a gridlock and bloody-minded enough to do it, or you have a Parliament Act-style get-out-of-jail-free card for the lower House which makes the upper House irrelevant.

    28.02.2012 10:01 Reply

  10. Mike Hanlon:

    I’m sure an electoral system in which ‘everyone wins’ is very du jour but it’s not one that appeals to me. Getting a seat in a different chamber of Parliament with equivalent privileges just doesn’t seem that much of a loss, does it?

    Also, third place can be a distant one, often the case in the most closely-fought marginals – the only remaining areas where elections actually matter. While the desire in a candidate to win and govern will undoubtedly remain strong, might not the prospect of a Westminster seat regardless and compensatory ability to frustrate that government’s legislation take the edge of what are currently ‘all or nothing’ battles between typically two main candidates?

    And how would already dwindling public interest in elections and politics be sustained, even improved, if everyone’s off to Westminster regardless of the outcome of the vote?

    The problem of how to reform the Lords is easily solved. Leave it alone. Excepting one small change. Install a properly independent appointments panel, to put an end to party hacks like Baronesses (Oona) King (who she?) and (Susan) Kramer to name but two with no real qualification, experience nor intellect to inform the legislative process obtaining seats on a party pass.

    The only problem with the Lords as I see it is that it’s already too much of a House of Losers.

    28.02.2012 18:14 Reply

  11. Mike Hanlon:

    By way of follow-up, I suggest ending Dissolution Honours, Resignation Honours, Party List appointments and possibly even banning political parties altogether in the Lords. Of course, people of like political mind will continue to group. But making that informal sends the right signal that the concern of the second chamber is the quality of legislation rather than its politics, which should be the preserve of the elected Commons.

    28.02.2012 18:35 Reply

  12. Woodsy42:

    “It is perverse to have an unelected, unaccountable chamber disrupting and sabotaging the work of a legislature”
    Given the stupidity and short sightedness of the elected legislature I would suggest it is absolutely essential that someone is able to disrupt it! The last thing we need is another elected house that would follow the same party affilliations as the commons so how about random selection exactly as we select juries – that system has served us well for hundreds of years. 400 ordinary people taken off the street and let them pass or block according to their predjudices and what they think is right. Because of the committment If selected they would be allowed to refuse, in which case another random selection until all places are filled.
    And I am not entirely joking, if it’s good enough for law and order it’s good enough to control the commons.

    01.03.2012 01:34 Reply

  13. Andrew Cadman:

    Your idea is certainly innovative but wouldn’t reduce the problem of rivalry with commons. Wannabe MPs would have every incentive to grandstand in order to get much needed publicity, particularly on measures likely to embarass the sitting MP. You could reduce this by making uptake of the Lord’s seat optional and, if taken up, the second place candidate would not be allowed to fight for that particular seat at the next election.

    If a second place candidate declined the Lords seat the offer would be given to the third placed candidate, etc.

    However, a problem you haven’t addressed at all here is that the commons and lords roles are suited to different types of people, so filling these on the basis of a single type of election would be deeply flawed.

    Full marks for innovation, though.


    09.07.2012 14:26 Reply

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