A way of Reforming the House of Lords

by Harry on January 19, 2020

Rebecca Long Bailey is proposing an elected Senate to replace the House of Lords (one, presumably, without John Bercow in it). I haven’t seen much detail so won’t comment (if someone can point me to published details, I’d be grateful). But it reminded me of something that Erik Olin Wright and I talked about many years ago when the Tories were carrying out moderate Lords reform but didn’t seem to know what it would look like. We wrote up a short paper which we never published. From the fact that we never published it you should be able to infer that we didn’t feel strongly that this was the best possible option: but we did think that a proposal like this should be on the table.[1] Link to pdf is here. The text is below the fold.

A Proposal to Transform the House of Lords into a Citizens’ Assembly
Harry Brighouse and Erik Olin Wright
March 2006

In the background of debates over how to restructure the House of Lords is a fundamental question: what, precisely, is the purpose of having a second chamber in the legislative institutions of a democracy? Roughly, there are two broad kinds of answers to this question: The first, embodied in the historic principles of the House of Lords, is based on the belief that electoral democracy is prone to excesses, so we need some kind of sober institutional check. The device should block or, at least, slow down the process by which representative institutions generate new laws and regulation. The old House of Lords, dominated by hereditary, and then appointed, peers was just such a brake on electoral democracy. This was only modestly altered when the House of Lords was converted to a House of Appointed Notables.

The second answer to the question imagines that democracy can be invigorated and deepened by the addition of a second chamber. The argument here is not that democracy needs to be checked, but rather that a single mechanism of representation cannot fully realize the ideal of democracy. The two chambers of a legislative system, therefore, are designed to embody different mechanisms. For example, one chamber could be elected through a system of territorial-district representation and a second chamber could be elected on the basis of some principle of functional representation, where members represent organized groups (unions, business associations, economic sectors, etc.). A system roughly along these lines exists in Austria.

We would like to propose a second chamber in the British parliament that would both provide a check on the failures of electoral democracy and, simultaneously, deepen the democratic character of the legislative process. The proposal is to convert the House of Lords into a Citizens’ Assembly of randomly selected members. We can imagine numerous ways of dong this, but here’s a rough sketch of one way:

• Members would serve staggered terms, say three years in length.

• The random selection process would be stratified in an appropriate way to ensure salient demographic groups roughly proportionate representation.

• Remuneration would be set at a high enough level to create strong incentives for most citizens to agree to participate, and employers would be required to reinstate members at the end of their terms.

• The Citizen’s Assembly would function in a manner similar to the existing House of Lords, being able to slow up legislation, send it back for reconsideration, but ultimately veto such legislation.

Skeptics might baulk at random selection. But selection by lot has many precedents: the jury system and Ancient Athens, for example. In fact, the early Enlightenment theorists of democracy thought that random selection was the only
sensible understanding of rule by the people, believing that electoral processes were too easily manipulated by the powerful.

Prime Ministers could not manipulate this system, and nor could their parties. It provides what elected chambers, by their nature, cannot: true diversity of the kinds of people involved in the legislative process. The citizens are neither career politicians nor their cronies. In contrast to a randomly selected assembly, a directly elected second chamber would, eventually, threaten the constitutional primacy of the Commons. The members of an indirectly elected or appointed second chamber would always be suspected of cronyism. A randomly selected Citizens Assembly would have the legitimacy that its members were ‘of the people’, but would always be clearly a secondary chamber. The process of legislating would be improved, but its coherence would not be threatened.

Is our proposal realistic in modern democratic conditions? Yes. It has already been tried, very successfully, in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Here is the basic story: BC parliamentary elections were based on standard single-member district first-past-the-post elections. So in 2003 the BC government sought to overhaul the system and replace it with a fairer one. But how? If existing politicians, elected under the old system, make the choice, they have a vested interest in the status quo, and in any replacement. To circumvent this, they authorized a randomly selected Citizen Assembly of 160 persons to prepare a referendum proposal which would be submitted to the citizens of the province for a vote. The assembly was selected at the end of 2003 and met throughout 2004.

The first phase of the process was education: members met every third weekend for three months for intensive seminars on alternative electoral systems. In the second phase, the assembly members attended hearings throughout the province to present the issues to open discussions with citizens and hear what people thought. In phase three, the assembly again met on a regular schedule in Vancouver to design the actual referendum proposal. The result was a proposal for a multi-member district single-transferable vote system for the province (a variant of proportional representation in which citizens vote for specific candidates rather than for party lists and can thus vote for candidates in more than one party if they choose). The referendum was then submitted for a popular vote in May 2005. To pass it had to receive a majority vote in at least 2/3 of the ridings and an overall vote of 60%. It passed the first criterion, gaining majority support in 90% of the ridings, but fell short of the overall 60% threshold, receiving only 57% of the overall vote. (The failure to receive over 60% of the vote seems to have been the result of poor information before the election. Polling data indicate that before the vote only a third of voters had heard of the citizens assembly. This lack of information was the result of a reluctance of the provincial government to run an education campaign about the referendum, fearing that this would compromise the government’s official neutrality on the issue. The plan is now to resubmit the referendum in a future general election with a serious effort at informing the electorate).

Of course, the Citizens’ Assembly to replace the House of Lords would have a very different character to the one-shot, special purpose of the British Columbia Citizen’s Assembly. We’d need to work out details of the institutional design, including the precise form of its relationship to the elected parliament. The crucial thing is that it affirms the central value of democracy as rule by the people and envisions a democratic order in which ordinary citizens are empowered to be directly involved in the crucial work of law making rather than simply the task of choosing their law-makers. It counters the limitations of competitive party-based electoral democracy by deepening democracy, not constraining it.

[1] Personally, I’m quite enamored by the idea of a hybrid between Appointed Notables and a Citizen’s Assembly, the main problem being the process through which notables get selected.



Jacob T. Levy 01.19.20 at 3:27 pm

Cf Arash Abizadeh, “ Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition,” Perspectives on Politics



Harry 01.19.20 at 3:32 pm

Excellent. Lovely to see it dedicated to Erik.


Robert Zannelli 01.19.20 at 4:12 pm

I would think the best reform of all would be to just get rid of the house of lords, not replace with some other anti-democratic structure.


JohnT 01.19.20 at 5:46 pm

I would find this proposal a lot more attractive if the system for choosing the house of Commons was not so broken thanks to First Past the Post. If the Commons were elected by a relatively proportional system, then it would be worth experimenting with a less factional-political Upper Chamber, but for now I’d favour a proportional House of Lords, perhaps elected by region (with a different electoral cycle) to counter the skewed House of Commons.


Ebenezer Scrooge 01.19.20 at 6:05 pm

Renaissance Italy was also a great believer in sortition or sortition-election, to reduce the influence of powerful groups. Wikipedia tells us that, for Venice:

Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.


steven t johnson 01.19.20 at 6:17 pm

The House of Lords” role as the jury of peers for aristocrats could be modernized and democratized? The upper body could take the summit of judicial review, advising the re-consideration of unconstitutional acts passed in lapses of soundly constitutional democracy. It could impeach nonfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance among government officials. It could determine boundaries of voting districts. It could try accusations of corruption. It could distinguish civic organizations genuinely pursuing their announced goals from criminal organizations exploiting their membership or wreaking harm on others. (To be sure, this aspect might be chilling for the Federalist Society, Focus on the Family, Scientology or for that matter religious schools that teach creationism.)

These and similar activities might also be viewed more as a Chinese censorate. The notion that ordinary citizens might be a part of the process seems to me invaluable. Party representation would follow with the persons selected by lot. Seeing such a body as either a censorate or the supreme court might suggest a need for expertise. But isn’t most expertise in the Supreme Court provided by the clerks anyway? This body could hire clerks.

If some sort of institutional/partisan experience is felt to be necessary, this body could also include a set number of members chosen by election, but the requirement be that they have the entire nation as their district, and they must win a majority of the electorate.

A true sortition will not invariably provide a perfectly proportional representation of minorities, due to chance. If it did it’s not sortition. Also, it is not perfectly clear what constitutes a minority, or who counts as a member of one. Lastly, lots can be rigged.


Gareth Wilson 01.19.20 at 7:40 pm

“The random selection process would be stratified in an appropriate way to ensure salient demographic groups roughly proportionate representation.”

Would you include Christians?


Dipper 01.19.20 at 7:42 pm

@ JohnT ” if the system for choosing the house of Commons was not so broken thanks to First Past the Post” well, speak for yourself. Personally I am right now quite happy with the way FPTP delivers clear accountable government. The last two years have shown us what minority governments look like, and it was awful.

The obvious problem with an elected second chamber is that it would have its own mandate, which in all probability would clash with the mandate of the HoC. Hence more logjams. Also, Baroness Smith has in the past pointed out that many bills leaving the HoC are very poor and it takes experienced former politicians like herself in the Lords to sort them into something workable. The ability to appoint to the Lords individuals who have specific expertise in an important area is a beneficial feature of the current system, so I am concerned that an elected second chamber would sacrifice valuable expertise and deliver less democratic accountability.


John Quiggin 01.19.20 at 7:56 pm

Partly agreeing with John T, I think it’s a mistake to think of bicameral systems in terms of a democratic lower house and an upper house appointed as a check on their excesses.

At least in a parliamentary system, the crucial requirement for a lower house is the formation of an executive with a working majority. That’s often assisted by undemocratic features (FPP, obviously, but any constituency based system) which produce stable majorities in the lower house even when no such majority exists in the electorate. An upper house elected on proportional representation then represents a democratic check on the executive. This is the case in most Australian state parliaments for example, where PR-based upper houses have replaced systems based on appointment, property qualifications etc inherited from C19.


Alex SL 01.19.20 at 8:31 pm

One thing that gets me about public reform discussions in many countries – be it how to organise the electoral system, the school system, universities, or whatever – is how insular the discussions generally are. Very few journalists and politicians seem to come up with the idea of simply asking how other countries are doing it, to compare what works well and what doesn’t.


J-D 01.19.20 at 9:05 pm

The purpose of a second chamber; the mouth of a mushroom; the stomach of an oak; the head of an oyster; the tail of an octopus; the shell of an earthworm; the nose of a starfish.


Moz in Oz 01.20.20 at 1:01 am

AlexSL: that’s exactly what Aotearoa did before/during their electoral reform process. The political-system geeks like me really wanted preferential voting but MMP won in the end.

One problem with a short term system is that it’s very hard to go back to a job after three years, and almost impossible to go back to a career. Especially if the break is unrelated. We see this in the motherhood wall in many careers, for example. This may be one reason why we see so much patronage/revolving door stuff.

I think that if you do use a sortition system it would be better to bias the ease of corruption against inconvenience more heavily in favour of convenience. Longer terms, more training (a pre-taking office shadow/apprenticeship period of at least a year, for example) and possibly career/wage related compensation on top of a generous wage.
But if you push that too far the popular revolt will be overwhelming. By “popular” I mean Murdoch. But too little of that, or too long a term, means that corrupting members becomes more desirable *and* more affordable…

Aotearoa also has instructive examples in Alamein Kopu (lost the plot), Paula Bennett (vicious against other beneficiaries), and Metiria Turei (resigned after vilification for using her benefit fraud as an example of why that’s necessary). All three went from being a drain on the taxpayer as beneficiaries to a drain on the taxpayer as MPs, but with quite different results. Arguably dramatic in all three cases, but to some extent that’s because they’re also women and in 2/3 cases, Maori, so anything they do is dramatic merely because it’s being done by a (Maori) woman.


Moz in Oz 01.20.20 at 1:03 am

(sorry, all three of those women are also Maori. Should have checked before posting)


Harry 01.20.20 at 3:09 am

“The obvious problem with an elected second chamber is that it would have its own mandate” — yes, and assuming that FPTP stays in place for the HoC, this problem is magnified if second chamber is elected by PR. Of course, I agree with people who have said we should have some form of PR (suitably checked) for HoC.

“One thing that gets me about public reform discussions in many countries – be it how to organise the electoral system, the school system, universities, or whatever – is how insular the discussions generally are”

Yes! And even when people do ask what other countries do they are often naive about the ecosystems within which the policies they focus on function, so draw simplistic inferences.

JQ: “This is the case in most Australian state parliaments for example, where PR-based upper houses have replaced systems based on appointment, property qualifications etc inherited from C19.”

What is the consequence for coherent policy making? Experience of the US makes me very unenthusiastic about having two chambers both with real powers actually to prevent things happening.


Moz in Oz 01.20.20 at 5:13 am

Harry, one place to start would be the excitement when one party gets a majority in both houses. The excitement should tell you how rare it is.

What it does for policy is favour leaders who are either directly capable of negotiation and persuasion, or can find minions who do that well. Julia Gillard is/was notorious for being able to do that in both houses of federal parliament (she had a minority in the lower house as well), and Tony Abbott for the opposite.

There have been times where (for example) Harradine could extract major concessions by being the only persuadable senator, but equally notoriously The Australian Democrats shot themselves in the head by swinging to support the widely-hated GST and Howard managed to ensure they took a disproportionate share of the blame.

But completely differently from the US, 80%-99% of legislation has the support of all major parties and is passed almost pro forma. Arguments are normally in the form of negotiated amendments. There’s usually a minor party or microparty to provide the token dissent (currently Pauline Hanson’s One Nation on the far right (US: middle of the road) and The Greens on the left/liberal/green side)

We also have double-dissolution elections that can be called by the government when the senate is sufficiently uncooperative. At that point everyone is out, rather than just half the senate being elected (viz, their term is twice a lower house term). Those are also rare and exciting. They are also even more complex than normal elections, which are already way more complicated than most other country’s elections. But 99% don’t care, they just rank the candidates and eat their democracy sausage.


John Quiggin 01.20.20 at 7:01 am

Harry, the US is the wrong guide to your intuitions, as a presidential system with a huge set of veto points.

In the UK, as in most UK-derived parliamentary systems, the problem is that the lower house is a rubber stamp for an executive which typically commands the support of around 40 per cent of the population. The executive is already too powerful, without the ability to change the law at will. The need to negotiate legislation through an upper house where the combined 60 per cent who didn’t vote for the government is represented is a valuable check.


Collin Street 01.20.20 at 7:21 am

Australian upper houses work because proportional representation gives a significant crossbench, and also because preferential voting means the parties already talk to each other and negotiate.

The system probably wouldn’t work outside that context. It works well for us, but nobody else has adopted it, not even the new zealanders.


Collin Street 01.20.20 at 8:20 am

Also the big problem with the UK’s legislature is the commons, not the lords:
You can’t run a 650 member organisation without multiple levels of hierarchy, which provides a seed for I guess you could call it hysterisis in response to election results… but members carry a second huge workload as de-facto ombudsmen and numbers can’t be cut until something else takes up that workload, like devolved english-provincial legislators or a vastly remodelled administrative law framework.

(I mean… as I understand it the lords responded pretty well to brexit, given the limitations of the parliament act. Would changing how they were selected have improved things? I mean, yes, the current way is a shit way but it’s a second-order problem at worst given what else is coming)


Alex Guerrero 01.20.20 at 4:26 pm

There’s an old book that makes this proposal, that was reissued in 2008. It’s pretty good.


Also, there is an active campaign to make this a reality. More supporters needed! https://www.citizensparliament.uk/manifesto


Tm 01.20.20 at 7:42 pm

Uk style FPP election systems tend to produce unrepresentative governments supported by sometimes as little as a third of the electorate. And the beneficiary that undemocratic arrangement is almost inadvertently the Right. A party as extremist as the UK Tories under Johnson could never muster a governing majority under proportional representation.

What remains a mystery to me is why election reform isn‘t a top priority for any rational leftist or center leftist in the UK, Canada etc. And why anybody in those countries would think that voting for a Green Party or similar might be a good idea. Can anybody enlighten me?


oldster 01.20.20 at 8:32 pm

I worry about capture of a different kind. We know that representatives always favor the constituencies that brought them to power. Sometimes this plays out in ways that benefit people (if they were elected by majoritarian methods), sometimes in ways that benefit other power-structures (if they owe their office to money, heredity, or other entrenched interests).

Here we have a situation in which the representatives are selected by random numbers. How do we know that they will not simply turn around and work for the benefit of random numbers? Prioritize the interests of random numbers over the interests of the voting public?

Architects of this plan may try to avoid this by moving away from random numbers to literal short straws, or paper slips drawn from a hat. But is that any better? A legislative house beholden to dried hay? Public servants owing their powers and privileges to fedoras?

My worry here is that the entire upper house could wind up in the pocket of Big Random.


Leo Casey 01.20.20 at 10:13 pm

Having never been impressed by Lenin’s dictum that under communism, a cook could administer the state, I am not so inclined to a second chamber that is an assembly of randomly selected people. There is also the problem that sample size (let’s say 200 citizens) is not of the number that would give you great confidence that it would representative, as opposed to subject to all sorts of distortions of an unpredictable sort.

It would be interesting, however, to conceive of a second chamber that represented constituencies of civil society, although the devil would certainly be in the details, and there would be all sorts of contestation about who deserved representation and who did not. It also strikes me, although you don’t make the connection, that this is very much in the vein of corporatist models of governance, some of which are… well, let’s just say, not the sort of model that one would want to reproduce.

I am mostly inclined to one chamber, with one person-one vote system of representation.


Harry 01.21.20 at 3:11 am

“What remains a mystery to me is why election reform isn‘t a top priority for any rational leftist or center leftist in the UK, Canada etc. And why anybody in those countries would think that voting for a Green Party or similar might be a good idea. Can anybody enlighten me?”

The answer to the first question might be: whatever the party is that represents the left or center left knows that it does ok under FPTP, and is afraid of the effects of PR, which would almost certainly lead to its dissolution (Labour, the DP). Actual politicians who run these parties have succeeded under the current system. and are heavily invested in it. And, to be fair, party leaders have duties to safeguard the parties they lead. Why any sane left-ish non-politician would support FPTP?: well, probably just thinking that its so unlikely to happen that its not worth it. (I’m on your side on this, just saying that’s the best explanation I have of why someone wouldn’t be).

Voting Green? Depends where you are and why you’re voting. If you’re in a safe district (which most people are, most of the time) its a sensible protest for a party that actually does support PR (at least in the UK, I assume the US Greens do too). If you’re in a contested seat, and you show no willingness to defect, the existing representative of the left takes you for granted. So no change. Before you get annoyed, its ok, I always vote for the Democrat in the few competitive elections I get to vote in, however inappropriate (my first vote for Governor after becoming citizen was for a multi-millionairess whose only qualification for office was her inherited money. I didn’t even complain till afterwards).

A while ago our (then open) assembly seat had only two serious candidates– a Green and a sadly unstable and manifestly unsuitable Democrat. The Green got 31%, way ahead of the Libertarian and Republican. It was a real shame that the Democrat won, but I assume it was because of the inertia of loyalty that parties need for survival. That’s obviously an outlier, but the (stranger) UK system allows for more rational anti-main party voting.


Collin Street 01.21.20 at 6:07 am

@Leo Casey: it’s been tried. I understand that it was a popular proposal among in particular politically-active conservative catholicism for a fair while until it abruptly fell out of favour in the mid-40s sometime. Currently it’s used by the irish senate and the hong kong legislative council; in the past it was a prominant part of the italian constitution.

The problems are basically:
+ there are obvious problems of definition, apportionment and allocation
+ even if those can be solved there’s the issue that non-geographical constituencies largely reflect the general community; this means that it has similar promajoritarian effects to block voting.
+ from a conceptual level tying part of a person’s political representation to their economic role… gives less than ideal optics.
+ all real-world proposals I’ve seen use multi-layer indirect voting, which in basically any context magnifies majoritarian effects to the point that representation becomes essentially nominal.

In the particular contexts it arose from these weren’t regarded as critical problems, of course.


Gareth Wilson 01.21.20 at 7:04 am

Functional constituencies haven’t worked out that great in Hong Kong. If you really want to base your legislatures around natural divisions in society, have one chamber voted in only by people with at least a Bachelor’s degree, and another voted in only by people without one. Every bill needs to pass both chambers. In the United States this divides the population roughly in half. The only problem is coming up with names for the chambers that aren’t insulting.


faustusnotes 01.21.20 at 7:10 am

I’m surprised at the idea that the right are the main beneficiaries of FPTP in the UK. In 2007 the Labour party won government with 35% of the vote, vs. 32% for Tory and 22% for Lib Dem. Given that we now know the Lib Dems will always support the Tories, a move to proportional voting would basically guarantee Labour never won power in the UK. Even Corbyn’s remarkably high performance (for Labour) in 2015, of 40% of the vote, would have changed almost nothing – Tories would have ruled with Lib Dem support.

Of course the counter-factual is that people change their vote when it’s proportional, not FPTP, but really I don’t think it’s wise to assume that if you had proportional representation it would benefit the left. The UK is a conservative country, and Labour only bucks that conservatism by seizing seats. It’s not the electoral system that needs reform, but the electorate.


Dave Heasman 01.21.20 at 7:12 am

I voted Green in the last UK election. Safe Labour seat and I hoped (vainly) that the Green candidate would get to keep his deposit. Just one reason.


Conall Boyle 01.21.20 at 11:48 am

Yes, well worth reviving!

But why a ‘stratified sample’? That falls into the politics-of-identity trap, surely? I argued with Barnett about this (see 19), where he proposed a 50/50 female/male selection. The joy of randomisation is that, without human interference, it achieves near-proportionality for everybody. Why sacrifice this just to ensure exact proportions of acceptable population sub-groups?

Otherwise we get into very invidious decisions about which categories are worthy of representation — by race, gender orientations, handedness, the list goes on! No. keep it simple, use the innate strength of the lottery.


Moz in Oz 01.21.20 at 10:28 pm

Malka Older has a series of novels about natural constituencies starting with Infomocracy. She’s a pretty natural fit for a lot of the people here, being a progressive-liberal politics geek :)

Their version is wholesale, though, you chop the whole body politic up into 100,000 person electorates and the winner in each becomes the local government. Freedom of movement and long electoral cycles mean that people tend to move away from particularly awful governments and towards particularly good ones.

Getting there from here, though… difficult. The Catalan, Scottish, Basque etc groups suggest that civil rights and the rule of law are much, much less important to current governments than even the possibility of getting smaller.


Harry 01.22.20 at 2:00 am

“we now know the Lib Dems will always support the Tories”

Do we know that? I think many of them know that they (well, their leader) made a dreadful mistake in the last election by demonizing Corbyn (after making the dreadful mistake of supporting the election, and in the midst of making many others). Well worth reading Stephen Bush in the New Statesman about this (and about everything basically).


Moz in Oz 01.22.20 at 4:17 am

Harry, one problem is that their members who are not wholehearted Tory supporters have often left while some Tory Remainers have joined. That skews the members to what the party has actually done rather than what some people think it should be. There’s little evidence that they’d done good but plenty of evidence that they’ve done harm – not least by working so hard to help the Tories win the last election. Contra Farron below they need to work *with* Labour and the SDP regardless of how they would like those parties to be, and that means not running against Labour MPs, or in seats that Labour might win. “working with other parties” has to mean giving something up yourself, whether that be the desire to run in every seat where there is a willing candidate or the need to enforce ideological purity on coalition partners.



faustusnotes 01.22.20 at 7:57 am

We know that Harry because we saw what they did in 2010, we saw they suffered terribly for it in subsequent elections, and yet we saw them come out in opposition to Corbyn in 2019 even though Labour was the only chance they had to stop Brexit. It was stunningly clear that they preferred Brexit and a Tory government to Corbyn’s labour and staying in the EU.

The biggest political con of the past 40 years in the UK has been the Lib Dems ability to convince otherwise intelligent people – and a crapton of voters – that they are a reasonable, centrist alternative to the Tories that young leftists might benefit from. They’re destructive right wing radicals, and just as much of a danger to the future of the country as the Tories.


Harry 01.22.20 at 1:33 pm

My impression is that they are (on average, obviously individuals vary) more cynical than you think, but maybe I am wrong. If the whole thing hadn’t been such a debacle the attacks on Corbyn would have been a terrible strategic error (as it was it probably didn’t make much difference) and many seem to recognise that now. Basically, I agree with Moz about what their best course of action probably is, and I think (well, I know) some of them are smart enough to work it out for themselves. Of course, things change, and people make mistakes. Historically the LibDems do well when the other opposition party does well, and that’s not accidental.


Tm 01.22.20 at 6:55 pm

If it is true that the LibDems are closer to the Tories than to Labor, you‘d expect them to hurt the Tories more. In any case the fact is that the outcome of the last election does not reflect the preference of the majority. Or would anybody dispute that?

The fact is that this electoral system forces Third Parties to either renounce their existence or, by existing, risk contributing to an outcome that is opposite to their political goals. (It seems that one cannot really blame political parties for existing, if one believes in political pluralism.) This cruel dynamic doesn’t always favor the Right but more often than not it does, if only because leftists tend to be quarrelsome and less likely to follow a leader.

Also, as a matter of fact, real leftist parties (as opposed to soft left of center liberals like Blair) have almost never historically won decisive electoral victories. The best and in most cases only chance at winning at least a share of power is in a coalition government. Unless we want to completely renounce this kind of electoral incrementalism, as some commenter around here are no doubt going to do. I might do so myself if I weren’t rather pessimistic about the chance of the world revolution bringing a better outcome any time soon.


Cian 01.22.20 at 6:59 pm

What is the consequence for coherent policy making? Experience of the US makes me very unenthusiastic about having two chambers both with real powers actually to prevent things happening.

God this so much.


Moz in Oz 01.23.20 at 12:49 am

One thing people might be overlooking is that Australia has very rarely had a majority government, at least recently. For all the furore about Julia Gillard’s minority government, it’s worth remembering that The Coalition are actually a coalition too. You don’t have to be a left-wing touchy-feel female-led bunch singing kumbaya (see also Israel). While the Liberal-National-LiberalNational* coalition did get control of both houses for a moment, *that* was unusual and lasted one election whereupon their leader lost his seat (not a coincidence).

A more modern electoral system could end up helping the UK Conservatives by allowing them to dump some of their more nonsensical policies and let the even further right take the voters that require them. Then form a coalition with the loonies and let them wear any opprobium that results from their demands (or the bribes they take). That might give you a more moderate Conservative party able to ally with the LibDems or whatever other centrist parties you get. Or you might even get a centrist anti-immigration party like Winston First in Aotearoa.

* you are happier not knowing. Trust me on this.


Tabasco 01.23.20 at 2:51 am

As a matter of political theory and democratic principles, a good second chamber is one that passes bills I like and votes down bills I don’t like.


novakant 01.23.20 at 9:50 am

It’s not the electoral system that needs reform, but the electorate.

Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?

But seriously FPTP is a disgrace to democracy – how can you win with just 35 percent of the vote? How can you just discard 55% of the vote? And as mentioned above it locks parties that want to stand a chance into a centrist lesser-evil dynamic that is incredibly harmful to the left, cf. Blair / US Dems.


Collin Street 01.23.20 at 10:47 pm

But seriously FPTP is a disgrace to democracy – how can you win with just 35 percent of the vote?

It actually works better than you might think. I mean, not well by any measure, but serviceably, because the electorate isn’t geographically uniform[1]. It’s like old-school chemical photography; each grain is either on or off, but the random variation in pre-existing sensitivity between grains next to each other means that different grains take different amounts of light to go dark, and the end results are more-or-less what you’d get with a proportional response. Shaping quantisation noise through dithering, I think is the signal-processing label for this sort of thing.

The key point is, the electoral system and even the legislature are intermediate steps, not end results: the thing that actually matters is the policy decisions and the laws passed. And there are so many other influences on policy outcomes, even in a healthy society, that bad electoral systems are rarely the critical link.

[I mean, did the french third republic deliver outcomes significantly better than westminster over the same time period?]

[1] Unless of course it is, such as in Singapore where as a matter of government policy all districts are as demographically identical as can be managed.


Moz in Oz 01.23.20 at 11:08 pm

novakant: When you look around the nominally democratic countries and rank them by “percentage of the population that voted for the winner” the UK is far from the worst offender. Sure, Brexit went through with 25% support… about what Donald Trump got. “democracy” they say, “will of the people” they say… “bollocks” I say.

There’s occasional talk in some places about extending the franchise, but the old goal of a universal franchise has gone the way of the campaigns for a shorter working week and ending poverty. Australia requires those enrolled to vote, Scotland lowered the voting age to 16 for the referendum, Aotearoa lets permanent residents vote, Cyprus and Romania let prisoners vote, the level of mental illness required before you lose your right to vote varies dramatically between countries, nowhere that I’m aware of requires a competency test (rather than disqualifying for incompetence)… but no country, anywhere, has anything like a universal franchise (for example “legal residents may vote”) let alone a mandatory one (all present *must* vote).


ph 01.24.20 at 3:35 pm

An upper chamber as check is essential and the only way to avoid the tyranny of the majority. I think the British Columbia solution utterly unworkable.

Abolishing the gongs, and all the hoopla associated with that collection of hacks is an excellent idea, however. Suits and ties should be banned, as well as flags and anthems.

The upper house would be elected and convene each time only after a public reading of the number of citizens in prison, unemployed, and/or on welfare. The upper house members can take turns reading the lists out loud.

All parliamentary meals should be prepared by cooks similar to those who prepare prison food and be served by day-labourers paid minimum wage. That way elected ‘leaders’ can have at least some contact with those they’re ostensibly representing and looking after.

I see plenty of appetite for reform; however, few have the stomach for the work.


Scott P. 01.24.20 at 8:12 pm

no country, anywhere, has anything like a universal franchise (for example “legal residents may vote”)

Many US states did have such a franchise, in the 19th century.


J-D 01.24.20 at 11:38 pm

Also, Baroness Smith has in the past pointed out that many bills leaving the HoC are very poor and it takes experienced former politicians like herself in the Lords to sort them into something workable.

If the House of Commons is very bad at doing its job, does it make more sense:
(a) to get somebody else, more capable, to do the job for them;
(b) to fix the House of Commons so that it becomes at least passable at doing its job?

To me this exemplifies a larger point: to me, it makes little sense to treat the question of the purpose of a second chamber of a parliament/legislature as separable from the question of the purpose of the parliament/legislature as a whole.

Putting it another way:
never mind asking what’s the purpose of the Lords;
what’s the purpose of the Commons?


Moz in Oz 01.25.20 at 8:51 pm

J-D: the purpose of the commons is to stop the commoners from revolting. My knowledge of the history is vague, but I recall that at some point a bunch of Engs asked their king if they could have a say in how they were governed, and while the king somewhat lost his head at the time luckily the situation was recovered and a reasonable compromise was reached… the house of commons. Or was that the house of lords, I forget.


J-D 01.26.20 at 3:56 am

J-D: the purpose of the commons is to stop the commoners from revolting. My knowledge of the history is vague …

In 1629 Charles I dissolved Parliament and for eleven years there was no House of Commons–and no uprising of the commoners, either. Then in 1640 he summoned Parliament again, and when there was once more a House of Commons in being, it did nothing to prevent an uprising of the commoners–rather the reverse. Charles II dissolved Parliament in 1681 and for four years there was no House of Commons, and again no uprising of the commoners. On becoming king, in 1685, James II summoned Parliament, but the existence of a House of Commons did not stop the commoners uprising (although unsuccessfully in that instance). In 1687 he dissolved Parliament, but the absence of a House of Commons did not result in an uprising of the commoners (it was a foreign invasion that drove James II from the throne).

Still, if we evaluate the performance of a parliament or legislature by its success in forestalling popular uprising, unicameral ones are no worse at the job than bicameral ones, as far as I can judge from the historical experience.

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