Electing the Lords: Issues 5 – Representation
My fifth post on electing the Lords addresses representation.
The House of Commons is intended to represent the political nation of the United Kingdom. This has been the source of its strength and the reason why it rightly has exclusive control over the life, death, and policies of the Government.
The House of Lords’ function, also previously stated, is to act as an independent house of expert second opinion. Its representative function, inasmuch as it has one, is to represent the UK’s civil society, distinct from that of the Commons’ popular representation. The constituents of a peer are colleagues in his or her field of expertise.
On top of this, however, the Lords is also by chance representative of the country in party political balance, and a convention has arisen since 1999 that no single party will have a majority. Even the Crossbenchers, who have no party allegiance, are similar in proportion to the non-voting UK population. The House before 1999 was dominated by Conservative hereditary peers; after this, however, the parties by and large have the same proportion of peers as they had the proportion of the vote at the last general election. Labour is currently the largest party, and the coalition is making new appointments to enlarge their parties post-election.
The result, then, is that no government can take the House of Lords for granted – not only will they have to persuade their own, independently-minded Lords, they will need to acquire the backing of at least some of the Crossbenchers and, normally, the Liberal Democrats, to carry the day.
In addition to this, indeed, the Lords is even more representative of the Commons in terms of both representation of women and in the representation of ethnic minorities. While the numbers remains small, and the difference has begun to narrow, an appointed House would have a far easier time improving its representativeness in these fields than an elected House would.
A House of the States
This leads us to ask, what would an elected Upper House represent that the Commons cannot? The typical example abroad is that upper houses represent some other facet of the nation – namely, territory, as opposed to population, which is the normal preserve of the lower house. So, for example, the US Senate has two Senators per State, regardless of State geographical size or population number. That’s fine – the US is a huge, sprawling federation of fifty States, none of which has an overriding influence on the Union – Texas or California by themselves alone override or influence the destinies of tiny Rhode Island or distant Hawaii.
This cannot be the case with Britain. England is roughly 80% of the British Union, in terms of geography, population, and economic clout. This will be a significant issue when I get round to writing on devolution, but for now, the geography/population factor is a real problem for a British Senate representing ‘States’.
If the British States got absolutely equal representation, then England gets a very rough deal, being under-represented by a an enormous factor. A compromise could be possible – giving England more Senators to make it more accurate – but I can’t see any sweet spot in which England can be fairly represented without making it an echo chamber again, rather than an effective second chamber for the United Kingdom.
The other option is breaking down England into a number of representational chunks – say, East of England, Midlands, London, and so on – but there is such a low level of identity in England for these regional divisions, many of which have only come about since the early 1990s, that turnout would be low and the Senate’s credibility would be undermined.
Finally, what role would these Senators have with their constituencies? Right now, MPs are the prime contact for constituents with Parliament, and it’s a mark of MP’s professionalism and dedication that they manage to deal with an average 70-hour week workday to accomodate it, as well as working into their recesses. I doubt that Senators would be capable of relieving MPs of any of this enormous work – in fact, I can envision that workload intensifying.
Consider: Party A has constituencies in the Commons, and Party B has overlapping Senatorial constituencies. In the eternal battle to win votes and make the opposition look bad, one of Party A’s MPs would work quite hard to serve their constituents and fight their battles, in the hope of securing their votes at the next election. Meanwhile, the Senator of Party B who shares the constituency would do the same, similarly aiming to secure the voter’s vote for their party in the next election. Instead of reducing workloads, the Senators and MPs will be duplicating their work, and attempting to sabotage the work of the other party. The loser, ultimately, is the constituent, who neither knows nor cares which party ends up helping them out, and will probably stay at home come the election anyway.
In conclusion, the Lords already has its own kind of representative constituency, that of British civil society. In so doing, it does not seek to undermine the Commons, ensuring the two Chambers remain complementary in functions and outlook. The Lords is also indirectly representative in that a convention has arisen ensuring broad collation with the nation’s political attitudes at the last General Election. Moreover, election would threaten all of these benefits, without providing the Upper House with a representative basis that does not threaten the primacy of the Commons or give the chamber credibility.
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