Home > Abroad, House of Lords, Reform, UK Constitution > Electing the Lords: Issues 2 – Upper Houses throughout the world

Electing the Lords: Issues 2 – Upper Houses throughout the world

An awful lot of people (including the Deputy Prime Minister, it seems) hold at least three misapprehensions about the House of Lords when compared internationally; namely:

  1. that elected chambers are the norm abroad,
  2. that the principle of appointment is a minority phenomenon, and
  3. that election of the Upper House is the best way to provide effective scrutiny of the executive.

Each of these is incorrect.

The truth is that election is no more common than appointment.  The most common method is in fact a combination of the two, or even indirect election.  Election, to be effective, depends heavily on its constitutional context.

An international comparison can show us under what circumstances elected chambers work well; and those is is less appropriate.  I shall attempt to do this now.

Countries with directly elected upper houses

  • United States
  • Australia
  • Italy
  • Poland
  • Czech Republic
  • Japan

Countries with indirectly elected upper houses

  • France
  • Netherlands
  • South Africa
  • India
  • Russia

Countries with unelected upper houses

  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • Ireland
  • Germany

Countries with a mixed-composition upper houses

  • Spain
  • Belgium
  • Mexico

A cursory glance at these lists demonstrate that while election is a plurality, it is by no means the most common.  If we also take into consideration the constitutional basis of each of these states, we can glean some more information on whether the elected upper houses actually work.

So, let’s look at the ‘elected’ list again.  Of those six, two of them, Australia and the United States, have Senates which are well known for being very independent of the Executive.  In other words, to borrow the phrase, they are congruent.  This is because both of these countries are federal, and their Senates are used to represent their constituent States and Territories.  Their Senates, therefore, provide an alternate and credible form of popular legitimacy.

The remaining four countries are unitary and parliamentary states.  The problem here, as I have described previously, is that there is no real, credible alternative form of popular representation from that which already exists in the Lower House.

We can see the effect this has on bicameral relations by consulting Gianfranco Pasquino, Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna and a former Italian Senator.  He shows that it’s incredibly rare for the elected Italian Senate to disagree with the Lower House:

“In theory and in the Constitution, the Italian upper house is as powerful as the lower house. As has already been stressed, the two chambers perform the same tasks and, when dealing with the government, they have the same weapon: the vote of no-confidence. Therefore, in order to survive and to secure the passage of its legislation, any government must be equally preoccupied with its relationship with both chambers. In practice, however, the upper house is unanimously considered to have and to exercise less power than the lower house. The fundamental reason is political or, more precisely, has to do with a specific party phenomenon. Since the inception of the Italian Republic all the secretaries of all Italian parties have been elected to the House of Deputies, with one exception.

When the new democratic republican Constitution had to be drafted in the period between June 1946 and December 1947 only the Communists formulated strong objections to retaining a bicameral Parliament. Those who wanted the Senate to remain but be democratically transformed – that is, elected by the voters – argued their case with reference to two potential advantages: First, an upper house would play the role of a moderating element, partly because of its composition of older men. Second, an upper house could serve as a cooling-off chamber where the bills were scrutinized under less pressure than in the lower house. None of this ever proved true in the experience of the Italian republic, but institutional inertia has so far prevented any change. Indeed, the only constitutional change that has so far been approved has led to the shortening of the tenure of the Senate that initially had been fixed at six years. Following three simultaneous dissolutions of the two chambers, justified by the imperative of preventing the appearance of two different parliamentary majorities, it was decided that, starting with the 1963 elections, terms of office for the Senate would last five years – exactly as for the House. For almost 20 years there has been no additional proposal for change affecting the Senate directly or exclusively.”

So; not only were predictions about the impact of election dead wrong, but then reformers made it worse by shortening the Senatorial term.  Wonderful!

I am unable to find any specific information about the other countries, but as they are all unitary parliamentary states, like Italy, I would not be surprised if the situation was replicated.  Japan’s Upper House phases its elections (half every 6 years), but what few sources on Japan I have gleaned seem to indicate that Japanese politics has a peculiarly high degree of party factionalism, meaning that both chambers are unusually difficult for a government to whip.

So to go back to my presumptions above; election is by no means the norm.  It is slightly (slightly) more common than unelected upper houses, but even where it is applied, the success of the measure is mixed and heavily dependent on constitutional context.  Elsewhere, countries tend to opt either for indirect election, non-election, or a blend of two or all three.

I hope that this kills once and for all the myth that Britain is archaic for having an unelected upper house.

Back to Article 1

Forward to Article 3


Pasquino, Gianfranco (2002), Journal of Legislative Studies, Vol 8 (3), p.67-78

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