Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

A proposal for Parliamentary Reform


I’ve explained in a previous article why I think that STV in multi-member constituencies is the wrong choice for electing the House of Commons. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want change. I do want change – I just don’t want change that will weaken the foundations of representative democracy.

The simple fact is that true proportionality is fundamentally incompatible with constituency-based representative democracy. Any attempt to reconcile the two within one system will inevitably involve a compromise which fails to meet either desire.

My preferred solution, therefore, is not to attempt to solve the problem within a single system. Instead, my preference is to have both proportionality and constituency-based representative democracy. And I think that the method of achieving that is staring us in the face.

Discussion of PR always seems to revolve around altering the voting system for the House of Commons. But, at the same time, there are also proposals for a reformed – and elected – House of Lords. I think that these should be linked. Instead of treating each as a separate issue, we should be looking at not merely a different voting system for the Commons and an elected Lords, but rather a reformed Parliament – that is, both the Commons and the Lords – which retains the best elements of both Houses and yet brings the institution as a whole into the 21st century.

My proposal is simple. Retain the existing single-member constituency system for elections to the Commons, with members elected by FPTP as at present (or a simple ranking system such as AV or Condorcet). But replace the Lords with an entirely proportional chamber, with seats distributed according to the total percentage of votes received by every party at the general election. After the election, each party with more than a minimum threshold (I would put it at 1% of the total vote, from candidates fielded in at least 10 constituencies) is allocated seats in the Lords according to their total vote and they then fill them with whoever they choose. Yes, that’s a party list system, but in this case I think this is the best way of doing it because the Lords are not intended to be representatives. These members of the reformed Lords would, like members of the Commons, be full-time members of the legislature and paid a salary accordingly. However, unlike members of the Commons, they would not be eligible for second home expenses as they have no constituency to answer to and hence no need for two official residences. And I would retain a small number of cross-benchers in the Lords, appointed by an independent appointments commission that is not controlled by the government of the day.

What that means is that every vote would, in effect, count twice – once for the individual MP in the voter’s constituency, and once for the composition of the Lords. No-one’s vote would be wasted, as even if they don’t get the MP of their choice they do influence their party’s position in the Lords.

However, if this was all that was done, it wouldn’t really change much, given the current dominance of the Commons. So I’d add a few other changes, to ensure that the newly proportional Lords does have an effect. Firstly, I’d amend the Parliament Act so as to make it much harder for the Commons to force a Bill through even if it’s defeated in the Lords. Ultimately, I’d still retain the primacy of the Commons in order to avoid the possibility of legislative deadlock where the two houses simply cannot agree, but I would make it impossible to use this on a routine basis. Secondly, I’d get rid of the convention that in the case of a hung parliament, the incumbent PM remains in charge and has first dibs at forming a government. Instead, I’d make the rule that the leader of the party with the largest share of the popular vote becomes PM, full stop. If that leaves him/her in charge of a minority government, then tough – they’ll just have to get on with it and negotiate with the other parties as necessary. But there will be no “kingmakers” – a smaller party can’t pick and choose which major party to form a government with, as only the most popular party will have the right to appoint the PM.

Taken together, I think these reforms would create a stronger, more inclusive Parliament, while still retaining the current best features of both the Commons and the Lords.