Reforming Parliament and abolishing the House of Lords

Over the last three posts (one, two, three), I have argued the case for a form of proportional representation. It would be unlikely to ever elect a single-party majority government, which is one reason people use to argue against proportional representation. However, I would argue that this is a good thing, and that it’s time to take a closer look at how Parliament is organised, and in particular the very concept of a separate government within Parliament.

I would argue that we should be electing individuals rather than party brands. Individuals can still have affiliations with a party, but they are elected by us, and they should ultimately be accountable to us, not to some organisation that they happen to be a member of. As such, parties should have no official status within Parliament, although I would keep the party names on ballot papers for voters’ convenience. This would, of course, eliminate the possibility of a party forming an official government.

However, I would argue that a majority government, single-party or coalition, is an undemocratic concept. We vote in 650 MPs, but just over half of them, so anything from 326 upwards, can shut out the rest of Parliament on all issues by forming a majority government. They do this by making a deal that involves many of them voting against their beliefs on many issues to ensure that they can, as a group, force through all their legislation. So they reduce the democratic power of Parliament twofold: firstly by shutting out potentially nearly half of the democratically elected MPs, and secondly by voting against their own views as an elected representative, to keep them shut out.

We elect all the MPs. But somehow Parliament is then partitioned into two tiers – those in power and those out of power. But every MP has been equally voted in by the electorate. We don’t vote in our MPs to not be in power. Being in power is what being an MP should mean.

The problem is the very idea that we need a majority government consisting of MPs that vote in the same way on all issues. It’s certainly not there for our benefit. However, the majority of MPs clearly see it as a good thing that they can shut out nearly half of Parliament to have more of the power themselves.

Because there would be no party in power and no government, this obviously means no leader of the government, so no Prime Minister. The process that leads to a Prime Minister being appointed is only indirectly and tenuously democratic. The Prime Minister is the person who happens to be the leader of the party in government. We don’t vote for the Prime Minister. As I have already pointed out, we don’t even have a national election to elect a party into government. We just have 650 individual local elections, which are then crudely put together as if that’s a reasonable way of forming Parliament and creating a government.

But worse than the position of Prime Minister are the other cabinet positions. The indirectly elected Prime Minister simply puts his favoured MPs into the cabinet positions. So this is one step further removed from any democratic process than even the position of Prime Minister. They can be there regardless of expertise – they frequently shuffle around to seemingly arbitrary other positions, and the positions generally go to those who are in favour in the party, rather than to those who have particular knowledge in that area. There are also special cabinet meetings where important matters are decided, which makes no logical sense. Why should, for example, the education secretary be involved in a secret meeting about which wars to fight in? The answer is simply that these are just the favoured MPs, and the labels given to the cabinet positions are in large part a façade to enable a certain set of MPs to have extra power.

Clearly I am against the idea that individual MPs should be given these lofty cabinet positions in such an undemocratic manner. It’s a rotten and outdated system and it needs to be changed. Politics is too much about personalities over policies and substance, and I would want to reduce this as much as possible. For example, Ed Miliband is often criticised not on his policies and how his party might run the country, but because he is seen as too “geeky”. This is an absurd state of affairs and not how politics should be. And in any case, better a bit geeky than smarmy and intellectually dishonest. (I discuss that video in depth in this post.)

Of course, if all 650 MPs were equal in every respect, it would be very hard to keep any sort of organisation and for anything to get done. Also, while many MPs might decide that they want to take a lead in some areas, other areas might get neglected altogether with no-one officially in charge. So I’m not arguing for a complete free-for-all. There would still be positions, which I’ll refer to as cabinet positions for convenience, although the system would be very different to what we have now.

For every cabinet role, there would be more than one position available, and they would be elected by MPs in a proportional manner. For example, there would be not one but several education secretaries. I’m not going to commit to how many positions would be best for each role at the moment, but it could be anywhere from two or three to five or six. Too few and it would be too similar to what we have now with the favoured few having all the power to make legislation, and too many and it might end up too chaotic and lacking in cohesion. In the early days of this system, it could be a possibility to trial different numbers of MPs in each role to see what works best in practice. Also within the Parliamentary term, there could be two or three occasions where the cabinet positions are voted on.

There could even be a role roughly equivalent to Prime Minister: something like main general spokesperson. But as with the other roles, there would be more than one position available. The cabinet members would be the main people responsible for proposing legislation in their policy areas. And MPs would be free to support whatever legislation they wanted on each issue. They would be able to form coalitions with like-minded MPs on individual issues to get legislation through. But there would be no need for a once-and-for-all official coalition for the term of Parliament on all issues. These would be transient coalitions, which would form for a specific purpose and then dissipate afterwards, and with no official status.

This would be a far more democratic and less personality-based system than what we have now, and it would reduce the disproportionate power that some MPs have within our Parliamentary system. However, although there would be no official party status within Parliament, clearly in practice many MPs would still vote with their party a lot of the time. But by making it unofficial and removing the whole whip nonsense, and also by having more independent MPs, the negative effects of this should be drastically reduced.

As should now be clear, the House of Commons is in need of urgent reform. However, with the House of Lords I would go further. I would argue that it is an undemocratic and unnecessary institution and should be abolished altogether.

We’re told that we need the House of Lords to provide “checks and balances” for the House of Commons, so that the government can’t simply force through all their proposed legislation. Currently the Lords can reject legislation they don’t like and suggest amendments. The House of Lords also has various experts in certain fields.

However, its necessity only comes about because of the system we have now with majority governments that could otherwise force through what they want. With a proportional system and no majority government, we’d have all the checks and balances we needed within the House of Commons. It’s what we have 650 MPs for.

Regarding experts, there is nothing stopping experts in various fields from standing for election to the House of Commons. And the unelected experts we have now still have their own agendas. They’re not just experts in a vacuum. There are experts on the left, experts on the right and so on. And they are, by and large, appointed by the government of the day for political reasons. For example, Robert Winston is not just an expert in medical matters – he is also a Labour peer. MPs also have experts advising them in particular areas anyway, so we don’t need an entirely separate chamber that happens to have some experts in it. It’s also perfectly possible to have advisory bodies without an official second chamber.

And then there’s the problem that the House of Lords is unelected and so undemocratic. Indeed, recent proposals for reform have included having a largely elected House of Lords using proportional representation. But then we’d essentially just be taking our elected representatives and arbitrarily splitting them into two, as if that would somehow work better than having all the elected representatives together. A House of Commons that works properly does not need another chamber to look after it.

The House of Lords can also cause serious problems. In 1999, when the Labour government was trying to remove hereditary peers, several Lords disgracefully threatened to disrupt Labour’s other bills as a form of protest.

Our current second chamber, the House of Lords, is undemocratic. Having a second chamber of any description is unnecessary if the first chamber is set up to work properly. Indeed, Norway and Sweden both have a single chamber and are ranked first and second in the Global Democracy Ranking list and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. We need just one chamber, which should be elected using proportional representation.

This concludes my series of four posts on electoral and Parliamentary reform and I’ll be moving onto another topic next time. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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