23 March 2009

Constitutional Reform

I've been following the comments on electoral reform over at Musings on Liberty [1][2], and it's got me thinking in a bit more detail about exactly what roles parliament should be performing and the least disruptive way to reform it so it performs its core functions well. The key as I see it is to establish what is needed from the executive and the legislature and seek to establish a system which ensures that each is well placed to fulfill its purpose.

I believe we need an executive which broadly represents the wishes of the electorate and is able to exercise a good degree of internal oversight, but is stable enough to perform its day to day functions without being torn apart by factionalism. In most respects, the executive should be like the board of a well run company; it should reflect a variety of opinions and allow for disagreement, but always within the context of ensuring that the day to day running of the company is not compromised.

The function of the legislature is quite different. As it is less concerned with the day to day running of the state, it isn't as important to have it functioning as a cohesive body; having wide ranging disagreement and a lack of a clear majority view within the legislature would be perfectly acceptable and in some respects desirable, as it could improve the quality and scope of debate. As the legislature exists to analyse legislation on behalf of the electorate in more detail than the individual members of the electorate would have the time to and therefore make well reasoned decisions more likely, it should have the approval of the electorate, but operate with enough independence that it isn’t simply second guessing what the result of a referendum would be and voting accordingly.

I think this could be achieved with five relatively simple changes to the current system:

1. Elect the Commons via the Alternative Vote.

2. Elect the upper house via the Single Transferable Vote from constituencies averaging approximately 4% of the electorate and returning around twelve members, with half being elected every five years, giving a ten year term for each member. This is the reform of the Lords proposed by the Electoral Reform Society [

3. In addition to point 2, I would also suggest restricting the members of the upper house to one term and barring them from standing for any public office after the completion of that term.

4. Repeal the Parliament Act, so that the upper house has an absolute power of veto over legislation.

5. Require that each piece of legislation has a sunset clause so it has to be brought before the upper house (either automatically after the sunset period, or earlier at the request of the lower house) and be re-enacted at least once every twenty years.

The result would be to give the lower house control over executive power and the upper house control over legislative power.

The use of AV for the lower house should increase the value of votes and remove the incentive for tactical voting, but not be significantly less likely than FPTP to deliver a clear majority, making it likely that those wielding executive power would have the majority support of parliament, while delivering a range of opinions within the minority which would be able to act as a counter-balance.

Steps 4 and 5 would give the upper house control over the statute book, allowing it to reject any legislation proposed by the executive and ensuring that historic legislation is periodically brought before it for review. Step 2 would ensure that the house would be broadly proportional and not subject to wild swings due to temporary changes of public mood. Step 3 would ensure that the members of the house would not be seeking re-election and would therefore be making their decisions without undue concern about being seen to be out of step with potentially ill-considered public demands or media pressure. It may also make membership less appealing to career politicians and increase the diversity of opinion represented.

One of the best descriptions of the separate purposes of the two houses I have come across is that the lower house represents the will of the people and the upper house represents the conscience of the people. That feels right to me; the Commons represents the changing will and potentially knee-jerk opinions of the electorate and the Lords, being free from electoral pressure, is able to offer a check on those immediate desires by considering the issues in detail and potentially saying "I understand why you want that, but when you think about, it's wrong."

I don't remember where I read that description, but I think it sums up the situation beautifully and it's something I’ve started to measure any proposed electoral reform against. Electing the lower house by AV and the upper house by STV, with the additional conditions I suggested, seems to satisfy those conditions well.

Any thoughts?





Vindico said...

I could certainly support that reform. More agreeable than the present situation.

The only problem with electing the upper house under STV is that it necessitates a party list system, and thus makes the upper house very political, whereas their current independence gives them the ability to act as the "conscience" of voters.

Paul Lockett said...

There are ways to avoid a party list with STV.

Candidates can be listed alphabetically on the ballot paper, or grouped by party and then listed alphabetically, as in specimens A and B in this document. I believe Scottish local elections use the first approach.

Of course, as people have a tendency to go down the ballot paper and vote in order if they don't have a particular preference, if you were called Aaron Aardvark, you would have a serious advantage when it comes to getting your party's first choice votes! One way round that which is sometimes used is to randomly order the candidates on the paper.

The most thorough approach to random allocation is the Robson Rotation method used in parts of Australia, where a variety of ballot papers are printed with the candidates in different orders, so that no candidate gains an advantage from being further up the paper. You can see some examples here

That said, I think the crucial factor in ensuring the independence of the upper house is limiting members to one term and preventing them from standing for any public office afterwards. I think that how they get into the house is less significant than the pressures on them once they get there. If there is no possibility of being re-elected, there is less reason to follow the party line if it contradicts the member's conscience.