Rowan's World, et Cetera

Having it Both Ways: the Two-House Solution to Electoral Reform

by Rowan on 19 May, 2010

Much has been made of the fact that Gordon Brown was never elected; but the fact is, under our current system, no Prime Minister is elected. In fact, our system makes no explicit provisions for individual voters wishing to express their preference of government, only an indirect message via their collective selections for parliament. Discussions of electoral reform tend to either ignore this dichotomy, or suggest messy compromises that no-one really supports, rather than confronting it head on and coming up with a truly creative solution.

Living in Eastbourne — a Tory–Lib Dem marginal — I had very little influence on the government for the first two General Elections I was entitled to vote in: Labour were almost guaranteed a majority nationally, and a Lib Dem challenge to an incumbent Tory was unlikely to affect that one way or another. In this election, it was a little more confusing: on a local level, the tactical vote was for the Lib Dem as anti-Tory, but nationally, it was (potentially) the Tories as anti-Labour. In fact, the local result — a historic victory for the Lib Dem candidate in a seat Tory for 98 of the last 100 years — went from “doesn’t matter, they’re both in opposition” to “doesn’t matter, they’re both in government” under a surprise Con-Dem coalition.

Now, there are clearly two conflicting problems here: on the one hand, the first-past-the-post ballot makes it very hard for Labour (or anyone other than the Tories and Lib Dems) to succeed locally, as their supporters will always be pressured into tactical voting; on the other, the constituency-based parliament makes it very hard for the Lib Dems (or anyone other than the Tories and Labour) to succeed nationally, as there are not enough seats where they are the tactical choice.

The national problem is the one most people focus on, and the solution has long been discussed: Proportional Representation. There is a lot of detail hidden beneath that label — closed vs open lists, national vs regional constituencies, one man one vote vs Single Transferable Vote, etc — but the basic idea is sound: a party that gets 20% of the popular vote, gets 20% of the seats (and the power) in parliament. This has always sounded like a good idea to me: we actually get a direct say in the government, and the resulting compromises and coalitions are a reflection of the fact that not everyone in the country agreed in the first place!

But to promote PR is to ignore our other problem: local opinions do deserve a place in parliament, and the fact that candidates compete to appear “more local” than their opponent shows a real appetite for this.  Indeed, the biggest turn off locally is that party whips leave little freedom for local representatives to reflect local views, and independents have to fight against assumptions of tactical voting. The solution here (or at least part of it) is to ask voters for more than one preference: the Alternative Vote, or one of its variations, would allow people to vote for independents and 3rd parties “on the off chance”, while voting tactically with their “2nd choice” vote.

So, how do we make sure that the House of Commons includes both non-partisan local representatives and a proportionally representative governing coalition? We could go with the proposal for “AV Plus”, a messy system where you elect a local representative, and the House is “topped up” with “spare” MPs to re-balance the parties. But there’s a more radical answer: We don’t.

You see, there’s an elephant in the room here: the House of Lords. It’s long been a popular idea that hereditary power is bad, but some kind of check on the government is good — it’s just that no-one’s quite sure what to replace it with. I’ve seen suggestions for a PR-based Upper House, but like an AV-Plus based Lower House this ignores the fundamental dichotomy of a General Election. Two problems, two types of representation, two Houses — see where I’m going with this?

Ten years ago, a friend and I were discussing this while walking through town, and put together what we dubbed “The HrothCoilo Constitution” (a portmanteau of our online nicknames). I intend to review it at some point, and come up with a revised edition, now I’m older, and conceivably slightly wiser, but its fundamental design solves the dichotomy like this:

  • The Lower House, from which governments and oppositions are formed, is elected on a nationally proportional system. People vote for parties, and parties form governments.
  • The Upper House, which has legislative but not executive power, is composed of local representatives, representing individual constituencies. People vote for individuals, independent candidates are strongly encouraged, and the power of parties limited.

For me, a proportional government kept in check by a non-partisan, locally representative, parliament, is about as fair a solution as I can imagine. Who’s up for some really radical reform?

One thought on “Having it Both Ways: the Two-House Solution to Electoral Reform

  1. Pingback: Voting reform won’t stop us getting an answer we don’t like « Rowan's World, Et Cetera

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