A 21st Century Reform, fit for the 21st Century UK
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
By Ben Evans
Now more than ever, the cracks in our constitution are beginning to show. The dramatic power imbalance between Westminster and everything else in our unitary state has been exposed. The pandemic response, the hollow ‘levelling-up’ agenda, and the illegal legislation ‘ripping up’ the Northern Ireland protocol all evidence the fact that the Westminster system is not working for all. This is a deep threat to the structural integrity of our union, and a radical solution is needed to bring the UK back from the brink.
The solution to many problems can be found in their roots. The flaws of the UK’s political system are: a lack of accountability, a lack of representation, and a series of democratic deficits. The UK’s upper chamber, our House of Lords, epitomises these flaws. With approximately 800 members, the UK’s upper chamber is the second largest in the world after the Chinese ‘People’s Assembly’ (another huge unelected body). The majority of Lords are infrequent attendees, and those who do attend are unelected yet highly political appointees - Lord Lebedev instantly springs to mind. This has resulted in an oversized, inefficient chamber, with a questionable level of legitimacy for its power.
This does not have to be the case. An ‘advisory’ upper chamber is an internationally rare - yet highly useful - political institution. This function should certainly be maintained, as it allows for the fine tuning of legislation and provides another layer of protection against truly disastrous policies. With the present political chaos within our ‘ruling class’, this is a necessity. However, an advisory chamber is not solely beneficial in the status quo; this benefit can be maintained and integrated among many others in the great reform that’s required. For example, reforms could include: increasing the chamber’s democratic legitimacy, trimming it down to a more efficient size, and allowing for far more regional representation; all are potential gains. Among the ranks of Progressive Politics, an ‘Elected Senate of Nations and Regions’ is nothing new, but with key endorsements from the likes of Andy Burnham, Anas Sawar, and Ed Miliband, it has snowballed in popularity. However, the present discussions have been heavy on the premise, and light on the tangible details of how this idea could manifest itself.
Gradually, a consensus is being reached over the need for some form of proportional representation. This form of democracy has been long overdue in the British political system, held back by a desire for majority governments, which are perceived as being stronger. Historically, this debate has been focused on the House of Commons, spearheaded by the smaller parties desperate for fair representation, but squashed by the two giants seeking to maintain their duopoly. In regards to the House of Lords, this consistent ‘status-quo’ argument falls apart. The last thing a well-functioning ‘advisory’ chamber needs is a majority, dominating voice, which is why the in-built Conservative majority was removed in the House of Lords Act (1999). A representational system would be perfect to grant the upper chamber more legitimacy. It would also encourage debate and compromise, instead of allowing for one dominant force, as in the House of Commons. In addition to this, the upper chamber could better demonstrate the UK’s true political kaleidoscope. In our present electoral system, smaller parties with more focused policy platforms such as the Greens with climate change; the Liberal Democrats with constitutional reform; and historically UKIP with Brexit, have all been denied a voice, whereas parties such as the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives have been given a far greater amount of representation. If the UK desires a truly effective upper chamber for all UK citizens, it should represent all beliefs according to popularity, and force these opposing forces to come to sensible compromises. This could potentially ‘populist proof’ our system by, instead of denying emerging forces a voice, allowing their arguments to be discussed, then denied, or accepted off their merits, instead of emotional power. The effects of this have been clear in Germany, who dealt with their Populist wave far more effectively than us in the UK. In 2017, the ‘far-right’ Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6% of the vote, and with-it significant representation, in their proportional system. This gave a platform for the fallacies of their arguments to be exposed, and publicly defeated. By the last election of 2021, their vote share dropped to 10%, and the party lost its status as the main opposition. Clearly, instead of removing the voice of these movements, it’s far better to allow a ‘market place’ of ideas, to find the best solutions. A denied voice only seems to grow, until it becomes a destructive roar. With the recent downfall of Johnson, a reform of this manner would mark the nation truly learning the lessons of his divisive tenure.
Thus, a ‘proportional-representation-like’ system is required, but certainly not direct PR. This is a geographic-demographic problem over all else. The UK is a nation in which a direct voting system in this upper chamber would grant England even more dominance than it currently holds in the House of Commons. As of 2020, the English population makes up 84.2% of the UK’s total, according to Statista. If you look closer, it’s clear to see that the population is even more concentrated, with 18.2 million people living in London and the South-East alone, approximately equal to 27.1% of the population, nearly twice the number living in three devolved nations, and higher than the number living in the North-East, North-West, and Yorkshire/Humber region combined. Clearly, a successful British upper chamber shouldn’t give in to these evident power imbalances and thereby skew itself towards the will of one section of our nation. It is over the solution to this issue that there is less consensus. To address it, one should look across the Atlantic, towards the US Senate. The Senate serves all regions and ensures equal representation for all, with two Senators per state.
I believe a more proportional voting system can be combined with this legislative structure, in a revolutionary re-structuring of our upper chamber. Firstly, it would have to be reduced in size in order to make both representation and debate more effective. Potentially, 144 members could be a far more workable number than the current 768. This could then be divided across the 12 distinctive regions of the UK (London, South-East, South-West, West Midlands, East Midlands, The East of England, North-West, Yorkshire and the Humber, North-East, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), all with 12 members each. Members of the upper chamber could then be allocated through PR in that region, with only 8.5% of the vote being the threshold for representation, and no need for distortions such as tactical voting. A system such as this would equalise the demands of the 12 UK regions, reducing the unconscious bias present in our politics. To further this, regulations could be put in place to ensure all members live in their specific region or originate from there. A strong affinity for the area would create a league of ‘regional champions’ both ideologically and locally. In addition to this, the relatively low threshold for representation would allow for more participation from smaller parties and specialised movements. All of this would ensure politics is brought closer to the people, by making it more responsive to the populations’ demands.
The benefits of such a radical re-modelling of the UK’s upper chamber are huge. Regions that have previously felt disconnected from the UK political system could begin to reconcile this relationship with a grouping of distinctive local champions pushing for truly transformative change. It could potentially relax the ‘anti-Westminster’ sentiment that has only grown over the past 40 years. Most importantly, it could improve policy for all regions. For the ‘levelling-up’ agenda to truly work, it must combine both a political transition of power, as well as an economic transition of wealth.
Another huge benefit of such a reform would be improving the accountability of our legislatures by tying the upper chamber to the direct democratic will of the people. The removal of the ‘security of tenure’ enjoyed by our present Lords would ensure frequent attendance and encourage members to take greater care when carrying out their duties. However, this would need to be accompanied by the introduction of salaries to allow for proper commitment and the inclusion of members from all classes, not just the wealthy, as we have seen too often in the present upper chamber.
It is certainly possible this proposal may also create a few new challenges, and this should respond to potential critiques. Firstly, some may fear that by adding an element of democracy to our upper chamber, it may begin to further politicise the institution and rip apart the relatively high level of co-operation for which it has become known. The absence of any hard power for this now streamlined ‘advisory’ chamber would lower both the stakes and pressure on politicians to uphold the divisions of partisanship. Reform could begin to weaken the controlling and ugly ‘whip’ system to prevent the emergence of ‘grid-lock’, frequently seen in the Commons when there isn’t a majority party.
Another criticism which may arise could be that the proposals may remove the ‘expertise’ held by the present Lords, and replace them with ‘cynical’ and ‘ambitious’ politicians. There’s little doubt that this may be a possibility, however one could question how valuable the present expertise held by the Lords truly are. There’s many great champions of their fields; nonetheless, for every one of those, there are countless members who turn up just for the title. A nomination for this new ‘Senate’ could be built up from local roots, again furthering the connection to regions. Potentially, local champions - put forward by grass roots organisations - could then be considered by local parties. Regulations such as minimum time periods of years spent living in the region could further ensure this is the case. In addition to this, the regionalised PR electoral system would allow for cultural expressions to emerge. For example, if the result was replicated in the 2022 local elections, due to the low 8.5% threshold, we’d even see a Yorkshire Party representative! All of these reforms could ensure members remain untainted by the ‘Westminster Bubble’.
The last decade saw the rise of populist movements from both the Left and the Right. It is too easy to despise them, or simply disregard them as sycophants. What people often miss is that this was emblematic of a strong desire for change, and a call to all of us who wish to make a difference to think about radical reform. It is clear that, from young students to ‘left-behind’ workers, people want politics to work for us all. I’m not saying this is the one stone that will kill all of the birds; however, it is this line of thinking that will create transformative change. Now the ‘Johnson Years’ of culture wars and Covid lockdowns are over, it is time re-unite our nation, and begin to change it from top to bottom. In the face of the ‘cost of living crisis’ many view constitutional reform as a luxury we cannot afford - an irrelevant project. This is dangerous thinking. The way in which our governing systems operate shapes our political choices, and, as a consequence, policy outcomes. Therefore, now, more than ever, we desperately need to begin crafting a system that truly fulfils the ‘Social Contract’. Government has been made by the people, for all of the people. It is now time for our upper chamber, which has for so long embodied our elitist and aristocratic history, to mark the beginning of a more egalitarian and encouraging future.
About Ben Evans:
Born in 2004, Ben Evans is former A level student who hopes to study History and Political Economy at King’s College London over the next few years. He is on the centre-left politically, and hopes to start publishing more articles to get his ideas out there and spark conversations. Evans aims to propose ideas to modernise British government, form an economy that all can contribute to and benefit from, and bring forward a new role for the UK in the global order. He has recently become an economics correspondent at the student journal Politics Relaxed, a site that makes current affairs more accessible in order to encourage youth participation from across the political spectrum.