The mere idea of introducing elections for half of our Parliament is shocking enough for some (letting the public decide who rules them? what a radical idea) that the details have understandably so far got relatively little attention.
So what are the highlights of them?
First, the Lords will be small – 300. That makes sense given how enormous the combined number of MPs and Lords is in Britain at the moment compared with other democracies (see this chart from the Economist which shows how Britain has far fewer people per Parliamentarian than any of the other countries in the survey).
Second, STV (yes, STV) is proposed as the electoral system. The small size of the Lords means that STV can be used without having to get into the sorts of huge numbers of candidates on ballot papers that you see in federal party committee elections. The experience of drawing up constituencies boundaries for the London Assembly (also much larger than Westminster constituencies, though for other reasons) also suggests that the constituencies can be drawn up fairly quickly and easily.
Third, the plan is for elections by thirds, coinciding with general elections. This minimises the cost of Lords elections and maximises turnout, which are good motivations, but it comes with two other knock-on effects: more votes for minor parties and the possible collapse of election expense controls unless there is major reform.
Fourth, the argument over 80% elected versus 100% elected has yet to be settled, though the proposals in effect defaults to an 80% option. Either way, it is also proposed that a reduced number of Bishops (and only Bishops; i.e. not including other religions) continue to sit as ‘ex officio’ members. In other words, there are some strong Conservative voices for special provision for the established Church, and Liberal Democrats in government have taken the view that a compromise on this point is worthwhile in order to get Lords reform.
Fifth, the proposals are for people to be elected for 15 year terms and then banned from standing again. I’m dubious about the virtue of this given how often at election time people want to cast a verdict on how politicians have behaved in the past and one term only means, once elected, there’s an awful lot of leeway to be indolent without any comeback. But being elected in the first place is itself a major step forward.
There are plenty of other details in the proposals, which you can read in full below, though my eye was caught by this:
Members of the House of Lords would continue to be deemed resident, ordinarily resident and domiciled (ROD) for tax purposes.
You could call that the Ashcroft Triple Lock.
Overall these plans are good – and it’s worth remembering how badly wrong Lords reformers got it in the 1960s by opposing reforms because they though better ones would come along. The subsequent 50 years showed that to be an stupendously misplaced view.
Less good is David Steel’s actions yesterday. Though Liberal Party leader through many years when the Liberal Party wanted elections for the Lords, he joined joined a cross-party group opposing any elections for the Lords. He’s wrong. It’s as simple as that.