Parliament: more global, less local (part 3)

by | Oct 21, 2009


Prompted by Bracknell’s open primary, I argued in part 1 and part 2 of this series that:

National politics is increasingly dominated by complex international issues, but today’s MPs are usually selected based on their views on local issues.

Local government should be given more powers (to tax as well as to spend), enabling MPs to be more nationally and globally focused.

We should slim down the House of Commons, probably by as much as half, with fewer MPs given more power, pay, and a greater media profile.

So… on to the Lords. I am in favour of radical reform to the upper house, with a design that is as different as possible from the Commons, and a structure that aims to inject relevant expertise into British political life.

The Commons – my proposed reform notwithstanding – will still be geographically based, with MPs representing their constituents in Westminster. The new Lords, in contrast, would not have local roots, but be a nationally-based chamber.

One – simple – option would be for a wholly elected upper house, with members drawn from national lists. I don’t favour this approach. The Lords would end up too much like the Commons – but with added political hackery (due to the need to smarm ones way to the top of a party’s slate of candidates).

Governments would also be robbed of a mechanism that allows them to bring expertise onto the front benches – often at short notice. Some think this is undemocratic. I think it is an essential adjustment to a system based purely on elections.

(David Cameron seems to agree, recently recruiting Sir Richard Dannatt to the Tory front bench to help the Conservatives ‘rebuild the military covenant’ with Britain’s armed forces.)

So here’s an alternative plan. It’s a mixed model – a fudge even. But aren’t compromises an integral part of the British constitutional tradition?

Again, as with the Commons, we’d hack the Upper Chamber down to size. The precise number can be argued over, but I favour 160 or so (around half the size of a remodelled Commons, and comfortably bigger than the US Senate which manages with only 100 members).

I’d split the Upper Chamber into three parts:

50% directly-elected members. I’ll go into more detail on length of terms in part 4 (yes, there’s more!), but if elections were held on a rolling basis, a relatively small list would be up for the vote each time round. Voters would be able to pick named individuals, rather than party slates, putting independents and party grandées on a level playing field.

25% appointed by political parties. Parties would use these seats mainly to draw talent from outside the Commons onto their front benches. I’d be quite happy for them to chop and change these members as they wished – allowing them maximum flexibility to govern or act as an effective opposition.

25% co-opted by the Upper Chamber itself. Purists won’t approve, but I’d give the new Lords the power to co-opt members for fixed terms. The system would mirror the upper house’s committee structure – with committees nominating individuals with expertise relevant to their areas of work, for approval by a full vote. The upper house would thus be provided with a mechanism to improve its overall relevance and quality.

So what to call the new Chamber? I’d suggest… the House of Lords, with members still given a life peerage. Becoming a Lord should be a big deal – an important job while actively serving, a lasting mark of respect thereafter… (Part 4 – on elections, tomorrow.)

Author

  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.


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