Democracy Scorned

The energy and public participation in the 2008 US Election has made many in the UK very jealous, and is raising questions about, say, why we don’t have primary contests to choose party leaders. Here’s how leadership contests currently work:

  • Conservatives: MPs choose two candidates, who party members can then vote on
  • Labour: the totality of party member votes represent only one-third of all votes counted. The other two-thirds are made up by MPs and MEPs, and members of affiliated organisations, i.e. unions.

Both processes are laughable, although to be fair, the Conservative leadership contest gives a little more power to party members. Not that the party wants it that way – a proposed change in rules to restrict leadership votes to MPs was only narrowly defeated in 2005. Why did they want to change the rules?

Some have argued that party members are unrepresentative of the electorate at large and are prone to elect a leader reflecting their views rather than those of the country at large.

Oh, the irony. I find it darkly amusing that UK political parties are simultaneously upset about their unrepresentative party membership, and bewildered about the massive drop in party membership, when members are completely disenfranchised.

I don’t hold out much hope for either party opening up any time soon, so I’ve been interested in other avenues. One avenue is the reform of the House of Lords. As most people know, the second chamber of the UK is not elected; instead, Lords are appointed by the political party in power. Pretty much everyone, with the exception of some Bishops, agree that the House of Lords should be directly elected (and called a Senate), which is a refreshing outbreak of sanity.

Exactly how they should be elected has been debated for about a decade, and the current thinking is recorded in this surprisingly readable white paper, An Elected Second Chamber: Further reform of the House of Lords. It was generated by a cross-party group, and it presents a reasonably clear consensus, which is also refreshing, except for two main problems.

The first is that the reform process has stalled since the Labour Party don’t want to do anything until after the next election, which will probably be in 2010. The second is that, on close inspection, the recommendations for reform would – once again – disenfranchise citizens from the political process. Here’s how:

Voting System

I had somewhat optimistically assumed that all parties preferred a proportional representation system such as Single Transferable Vote. While the Liberal Democrats favour STV, the Conservatives would prefer a First Past The Post system, which would most likely produce a second chamber identical to the first (the white paper doesn’t say what Labour wants). Personally, I say proportional representation or bust – why bother having a British ‘Senate’ that looks exactly the same as the Parliament, especially when everyone agrees on the principle that it shouldn’t?


All three parties think that about 20% of members should be appointed – 87 out of a proposed 435-strong ‘Senate’ – in the interests of having an independent, non-party-affiliated element. I find this absurd. Not only does it make a mockery of the new-found elected legitimacy of the second chamber, but it assumes that there is no way an independent non-affiliated person could get elected. In fact, the white paper says:

…a wholly elected chamber would leave little or no room for non-aligned people who were independent of party affiliations. It could also jeopardise the principles that no party should have an outright majority, that the House should be more diverse, and that the second chamber should include expertise and experience from people whose careers have lain outside politics.

Very laudable principles indeed. But why would they think that independent members couldn’t be elected? Let’s see…

Term Length

There is widespread consensus that elected members of the second chamber should serve a single, non-renewable term of 12-15 years.

The reasoning behind this is that a single term enhances the independence of members in the second chamber, and a long term gives them the necessary time to get to grips with the system. A third of the 435-member ‘Senate’ would be elected every four years; with 20% appointed, that would mean 116 ‘Senators’ elected each time.

The first time I read this, I thought it sounded fine, although somewhat arbitrary. And then I did some maths.

In the 2005 General Election, 27,110,727 votes were cast. Assuming that the same number would vote in elections for the Senate under a proportional representation system, you would need around 230,000 votes to get a single person in (give or take – it really depends on how the system is set up). Only seven parties gained more than 230,000 votes in 2005. They are:

  1. Labour (9,562,122)
  2. Conservative (8,772,598)
  3. Liberal Democrat (5,981,874)
  4. UK Independence (603,298)
  5. Scottish National Party (412,267)
  6. Green (257,758)
  7. Democratic Unionist (241,856)

These are all pretty mainstream parties and if people voted in the same proportion, it’s true that you wouldn’t get many ‘independent’ members elected at all. Even if people shifted allegiances, as they might do in a proportional representation system, it is difficult to envisage how a decent number non-affiliated people could get elected, needing 230,000 votes each.

This appears to make the case for having 20% of the chamber appointed… if you had absolutely no imagination. Consider this – if 50% of the chamber were elected every six years, then you would only need 160,000 votes; or if the whole chamber were elected at once, you’d need a mere 80,000 votes. Surely you could drum up enough groups of 80,000 to get a whole host of non-party-affiliated members into the Senate?

Ah, but is it so smart to have the entire second chamber elected at once? After all, the US Senate is elected in thirds, to dampen massive swings in voter sentiment:

To guarantee senators’ independence from short-term political pressures, the framers designed a six-year Senate term, three times as long as that of popularly elected members of the House of Representatives. Madison reasoned that longer terms would provide stability. “If it not be a firm body,” he concluded, “the other branch being more numerous, and coming immediately from the people, will overwhelm it.” Responding to fears that a six-year Senate term would produce an unreachable aristocracy in the Senate, the framers specified that one-third of the members’ terms would expire every two years, leaving two-thirds of the members in office. This combined the principles of continuity and rotation in office.

I agree that that’s a good reason, but if we’re borrowing ideas from the US Senate, why not borrow the term length as well?

Most Prime Ministers don’t make it to 12 years in office; the last person to do so was William Ewart Gladstone, who first became Prime Minister in 1868. Certainly no US President ever will. So why do UK political parties think that it will take Senate members 12 years to understand how to do their job properly? I honestly can’t think of any rational explanation for a 12 year term.

I can think of an irrational explanation, though: it favours older people and career politicians. Even the most ardently political young people would think twice about spending a 12 year chunk of their life in the same job. We don’t expect this of MPs, and most people would agree that they face a tricky job.


I can’t read people’s minds, much as I would like to. This means that I don’t actually know that the people who formulated this white paper are only looking out for the interests of their parties – I can only suspect it. In fact, perhaps I have missed something. But as I look at the recommendations in the white paper, I see a system that shuts out the possibility of any real independents getting elected to a British Senate, and then cravenly uses this to justify the appointment of members – a process that is inherently vulnerable to cronyism, favours, and political motives.

Here’s what I propose:

The second chamber (the ‘Senate’) shall comprise 436 members, and be fully elected via Single Transferable Vote. Terms will last for six years, with 50% of the chamber being elected every three years.

Such a system would require members to gain roughly 120,000 votes to be elected; I dare say that you could drum up 120,000 votes each for plenty of independents and special interests. You might even get a genuinely representative second chamber. Shame about the first, though.

4 Replies to “Democracy Scorned”

  1. It’s for a lot of these reasons, about members being too tied into party politics, that I regret the loss of hereditary members. You’d never quite know what you’d get and there was no political reason to have an allegiance with a party (although there’s probably others, such as the heritage of social/cultural memes). It added that element of randomness.

  2. First, ‘why bother having a British ‘Senate’ that looks exactly the same as the Parliament?’ The answer is most likely that the Party in power wants to gain control for both Houses. Remember, politics is about power.
    Second, ‘any rational explanation for a 12 year term’. This is the legacy of the current life-peer system. This could be seen as a compromise from ‘life’ term to a ’12 year’ term, a huge compromise.
    Third, your proposal is very simple and rational, to keep the debate going, I would sugget you writing to the Times.

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