Slipped in near the end of Nick Clegg’s keynote speech to Liberal Democrat conference was the news that the first democratic elections to the House of Lords are pencilled in for 2015.
Party sources have confirmed that the reference to Liberal Democrat candidates at the next general election fighting alongside candidates for a reformed Upper House means the draft Lords reform legislation due to be published early in 2011 is being planned on the basis of elections in 2015.
Minor party boost
There are three likely outcomes from having elections to both Houses of Parliament coincide. First, experience from other contests suggests this will boost fringe parties with people seeing their vote for the Commons as a way to pick the Prime Minister and their vote for the Lords as a way to signal concern in a particular interest or cause. Add this to the promise of proportional representation for the Upper House and smaller parties will be looking forward to very favourable conditions.
The unelected survive for longer
Second, holding off on the first set of elections for the full term of Parliament gives all the unelected peers an extra five years in power and beyond the reach of public accountability. Moreover, with serious consideration being given to introduce elections for the Upper House in tranches, some of the unelected could stay in power for many years even beyond that.
Expense controls under strain
Third, the combination of Commons and Lords elections on the same day will put immense strain on the already creaking rules intended to control constituency campaign expenditure in elections for the House of Commons.
I have previously written about how the ability to ‘charge’ items of local campaigning against the national rather than constituency limit at general elections has enabled parties to hugely – but legally – concentrate extra expenditure in marginal seats. The addition of an extra campaign on the same day – not to mention also elections for many local authorities – will provide yet another means by which extra expenditure can be piled in to marginal seats.
Unless action is taken to significantly reform election expense rules, the days when local campaigning in marginal seats was controlled by expense limits will become a distant memory.
UPDATE: Have just caught (Lord) Tom McNally’s speech to conference where he made very positive comments about pushing ahead with Lords reform, though without contradicting the 2015 election timetable.