The coalition government is pledged to introducing a package of reforms to our electoral system, including extending it to cover the House of Lords. Quite what the impact of these changes will be is an issue addressed in the Litmus newspaper jointly produced by Lib Dem Voice, Left Foot Forward and ConservativeHome. Here is my piece on the topic, and you can read the full newspaper, including the other pieces on this topic from Lord Norton and Will Straw, either via the hard copies in conference registration packs or online at the Litmus Test website.
The present House of Lords model gives a seat in Parliament for life without having to face any election. We need constitutional reform and an electoral system that reduces the number of safe seats, argues Dr Mark Pack.
A healthy democracy not only gives people the vote, it also makes the fate of politicians dependent on how the votes are cast. Britain has a proud record for the first part of that equation, frequently among the first to expand the franchise in different ways and administering elections which, for all the glitches, have consistently been run impartially for over a century now.
Yet when it comes to the second half of the equation — whether the fate of politicians is genuinely in the hands of the public — Britain’s record is far from glorious. The prime example is the House of Lords: please a party leader once, get a role in Parliament for life.
Laziness, incompetence, stupidity and even financial transgressions all still leave you in post until you die. Even more shockingly, get defeated as an MP in an election and what happens? You stand a chance of being given a slot in the Lords for life. Treating defeated MPs well is one thing; responding by giving them a permanent place in Parliament without having to face an election again is taking gratitude rather too far.
The House of Commons, with its regular elections, at first glance is a completely different matter. Yet by courtesy of the combined workings of our electoral system and its boundaries, in practice a huge proportion of MPs do not have to worry about the public because their seats are safe.
Shockingly, around a quarter of the seats in Parliament have not changed hands between parties at any of the 17 general elections from 1945 onwards. In that period the country, the world and our politics have changed hugely. The economy has boomed and busted. Conservative and Labour landslides have come and gone, as have Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. The Cold War has started and finished. The list goes on… and all through that time for around a quarter of the seats the same party always wins.
Nor are these seats just a freakish extreme. Across all the general elections of the last 40 years, including 1970, nearly half the constituencies have not changed hands between parties even once. The reality of political life for far too many politicians is that voters electing and chucking out people is something that happens to others, not to themselves. It is a dirty little secret of large swathes of the political class.
It is dirty little secret the Coalition Government should address — but its promised reforms may not deliver on that.
Under the proposed reforms, the Lords will finally catch up with what the Commons started allowing some members of the public to do in the thirteenth-century — letting them vote on who gets to sit there. The details, however, may yet protect the dirty little secret: particularly if we get closed party lists and 15-year terms of office. Either – or, even worse, both — would mean safe seats and a new class of politicians not having to worry about the minor inconveniences of which way the public vote.
And the reforms should also help in the Commons, where the luxury of not having to worry about losing your seat unless you go ‘duck- house mad’ will be severely reduced if the voting system changes and if the new constituency boundaries reduce the number of safe seats.
The impact of fewer seats on the proportion that are safe is a relatively unstudied area and is therefore a largely unknown wildcard. Moving to the Alternative Vote is, of course, dependent on a referendum.
So it is in reform to the House of Lords that the Coalition Government can choose to be sure to sweep away at least part of the dirty little secret of politicians. It can choose an electoral system that requires individuals to work hard for public approval to get elected. It can choose rules that do not then preserve them in power for a long period immune from the public regardless of how mad, bad or dangerous they are. In other words, it can avoid closed lists, use a voting system that gives the public choices between candidates and avoid long single terms of office.
Will it choose to do so? That is very much an open question at the moment.