Abolish the Lords, Elect the Senate

Lords reform: PR elections, regional lists & 50% women’s representation

By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner

London, UK – 2 October 2019


In the twenty-first century, it is time that British democracy ditched the unelected, aristocratic past. The House of Lords is a remnant of feudalism, still based on patronage and peopled by the supposedly great and good.

We need, and deserve, a fully elected second chamber – a Senate – to scrutinise and revise legislation from the House of Commons and to hold the government to account. This Senate should, in my view, be made up of members elected by, accountable to and removable by, the public.

It would, however, be a big mistake to elect the Senate on the same or similar basis to the House of Commons. This would make it little more than a Commons Mark 2.

We need a system of Senatorial election that is radically different, to ensure that its composition does not merely replicate the make-up of the lower house.

This could involve a new election model based on party lists in large regional constituencies corresponding to the existing constituencies that we use for European elections. These big regional constituencies would help to more accurately reflect the regional strengths and weaknesses of the various political parties and give representation to smaller parties that are currently unrepresented or under-represented at Westminster.

It could also be a legal requirement that party candidates and their order on the party list should be decided by a secret ballot of all party members in the region, conducted by an independent Election Commission or by the Electoral Reform Society. This would prevent the abuse of the democratic process by party managers putting loyalists and favourites at the top of the party list.

Within this broad framework, I would suggest three possible election innovations for the new Senate:

The first proposed election model would be a proportional voting system based on regional constituencies and regional party lists. The number of seats allocated to each party would correspond to the number of votes received by each party, using a formula similar to the one used in European elections. There would be around 40 seats per regional constituency, which would allow for the election of candidates from parties that win more than 3% to 5% of the vote.

This system would ensure representation for smaller existing parties like the Greens, UKIP and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, as well as for new small parties representing, perhaps, women, trade unions, senior citizens, animal welfare groups and so on. It would also allow independent candidates to stand and have a good chance of securing election. This would break the unfair political stranglehold of the three main parties and make the Senate more representative of the broad spectrum of political opinion.

A downside would be the likely election of Brexit party Senators. Much as I loathe the Brexit party, its presence in the Senate is the price we have to pay for a genuinely democratic and representative second chamber. To deny political representation to voters that we disagree with is an attack on democracy itself. Defeating the Brexiteers is not going to be achieved by undermining and rigging the democratic process. We will defeat them by educating and campaigning to expose their bigotry and flawed policies.

A second alternative electoral model would be to elect the Senate via first-past-the-post and open party lists in the same large regional constituencies, as in option one.

Under a closed party list, electors vote for a party and the list of candidates drawn up by party bosses. By voting for a party they have no choice about the candidates. This is not democracy. It is partyocracy.

In contrast, under a legally required open list system, party members would decide their list candidates by secret ballot. Electors would then be able to vote for their preferred candidates from the party list, but regardless of the candidate’s official ranking in that list. They could also vote for a mix of candidates from different party lists: some Labour candidates, some Green, some Lib Dem and some Tory. The candidates, not the parties, with the highest votes would be elected. In a constituency with 40 seats, for instance, the 40 candidates with the most votes would become Senators. This voting model would also allow the election of Senators from smaller, currently marginalised parties, as well as independents.

The third alternative voting model is a first-past-the-post regional list system designed to redress the gender imbalance in parliament and secure 50% women’s representation in the Senate. Electors would be required to vote for an equal number of men and women candidates. In each region, there would be two lists of candidates – a male list and a female list – decided by a secret ballot of party members in the region and then put to the voters on election day. If a regional Senate constituency elects 40 members, for example, electors would be able to vote for up to 20 men from the male list and up to 20 women from the female list. The 20 candidates from each list with the most votes would be elected. This would ensure that the Senate was 50% male and 50% female. Automatic gender parity.

These three proposals are offered for debate. They are not fixed in stone. But if something along these lines was adopted it would produce a second chamber with a very different composition, feel, style and focus from the House of Commons; and therefore act as a genuinely independent and useful scrutiny and revising legislature. Very importantly, this new Senate would also be a chamber that more truly represents the political diversity of modern twenty-first century Britain – and be a chamber that is more fully accountable to the British people.

It’s time we had a Senate – and made the House of Lords history!