As an advocate of proportional representation I am a reluctant supporter of casting my vote in favour of AV – the Alternative Vote – at the forthcoming referendum. If the yes vote succeeds however, this “miserable little compromise” as Nick Clegg once called it, could just redeem itself by forming the basis for a reform of the House of Lords, in a way which would resolve the ongoing wrangle over whether the reformed upper chamber should be elected, appointed or be an amalgam of the two. Whilst this AV Second Chamber option is a late comer to the menu of reform options, it deserves consideration.
Leaving aside for the moment the merits and demerits of an elected, nominated or hybrid upper chamber, let me summarise the proposal.
First preference votes cast at a constituency level in an AV election, if aggregated into national totals for each party could be used as the basis for appointing places in an upper chamber. Parties would have the right to appoint members in proportion to the first preference votes cast in their favour. It would be up to each party to decide how they should make their nominations; appointees however could not be individuals who had stood for election to the House of Commons in the current cycle. The appointee could previously have been a member of the House of Commons, but might equally be chosen for their experience in other areas of public or business life. Nomination could be made by whatever process was agreed by each party for the purpose, though the agreed process should be a matter of public knowledge at the time of the election.
There are various merits to this approach.
- The resulting membership of the upper chamber would be representative of the full range of political opinion expressed in the election.
- The right to nominate members would be fairly distributed across all political parties.
- The nominated basis of the upper chamber would offer the opportunity for people of talent to be brought into the upper chamber from outside the mainstream political community.
- By integrating the process for appointing members to the upper chamber into a general election, engagement of the electorate would be maximised and the risk of low voter turnout or poor engagement of the electorate in an election for the upper chamber would be avoided.
If appointments to the upper chamber were made in this way the widespread cynicism about political appointees would be neutralised in a process which would be transparent and linked to the priorities of the electorate.
Whilst there is currently popular support for the idea of a wholly elected upper chamber there is also widespread cynicism directed at the political community which such an elected chamber would inevitably feed. Despite a clear commitment to democracy the electorate has little appetite to add to the existing expense and burden of elections. They are already fatigued by the work of reading manifestos and the intrusions of doorstepping politicians and election broadcasts, all of which are a necessary part of the decision making that is involved in an election. It is doubtful even that politicians and party hacks can stomach much more of the slog and expense involved in a further election.
An appointed upper chamber would be clearly circumscribed by its revising remit and could not claim – as would be likely with an elected second chamber in some circumstances – a greater authority to govern than the House of Commons, with the inevitable constitutional confusion that this would cause.
Some additional considerations.
- To allow time for the process of nominations to be properly completed following an election, the upper chamber appointed from the previous parliament would continue to operate for a period deemed sufficient for the new appointees to be put in place.
- Parties could prepare and publicise potential lists of appointees prior to the election.