On 11 and 12 June 2018 the Constitution Unit co-hosted two workshops with Rome LUISS university, the first being on ‘The challenges of reforming upper houses in the UK and Italy’. This post is the first in a series summarising the speakers’ contributions. Here the Unit’s Meg Russell reflects broadly on the international challenges of bicameral reform, drawing on experiences in the UK, Italy, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and Spain.
In reflecting on comparisons between the UK and Italy, in many ways our two parliaments are very different. The UK parliament is traditionally seen as weak (though I have disputed this), while the Italian parliament is seen as strong. Connectedly, the UK House of Lords is a wholly unelected institution, while the Italian Senate is largely made up of directly elected members. Nonetheless, one thing that unites the two systems is long-running pressure for bicameral reform. In both countries there have been numerous proposals made for second chamber reform over decades, most of which have failed. The most recent and fairly spectacular examples were the failure of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals for Lords reform in 2012, and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s proposals for Senate reform in 2016, which led to his resignation after voters rejected them at a referendum.
My own interest in bicameral reform dates back to 20 years ago when I began research for my first book, Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas. In seeking to learn lessons for Lords reform from other countries, it soon became clear that reform pressures in the UK were far from isolated – if anything, they were the norm. So much so that I dedicated a chapter in that book to comparative pressures for reform.
So why are second chambers worldwide so controversial? And why, given these pressures, do they prove in practice so difficult to reform? The answers to these questions are closely related.
The functions of second chambers, and their controversial nature
The starting point in understanding these difficulties is to remind ourselves what second chambers are for. Fundamentally they exist for two purposes: to provide an alternative means of representation from the first chamber, and to act as a check or a restraint on the decisions of that chamber (what Patterson and Mughan in their 1999 book Senates call ‘representation’ and ‘redundancy’)
Italy has always been seen as weak on the first point – as the membership of the two chambers has historically been very similar. The weaknesses in Italy are a seeming duplication between the chambers, and a second chamber that is if anything seen as too strong – given its co-equal powers with the Chamber of Deputies over legislation, and its highly unusual power to vote no confidence in the government.
The nature of the UK second chamber is very different. The Lords historically represented different class interests to the Commons (on a model which was previously widespread across Europe). Its traditions as an ‘elite’ chamber, and its continued unelected basis, mean it has long been controversial.
Today the commonest means of membership differentiation in bicameral systems comes through territorial representation in the second chamber. The US is the classic case, with equal representation for each state, but there are numerous other examples. This can bring controversy of its own, because proper differentiation depends on divergence from a population-based principle of ‘one person one vote’.
Other means of differentiation also exist: for example linguistic representation in Belgium, or representation of professional groups in Ireland. But these too can prove controversial.
Second chambers’ policy interventions (or lack of interventions) can also cause controversy. In countries like Italy (at least historically) and Ireland, where the partisan make up of the two chambers is very similar, the second chamber can be criticised as ‘redundant’: as an example of ‘too many politicians’ and a waste of public money for little obvious gain. In other countries where the second chamber frequently disagrees with the first this is also contentious. The first chamber, after all, has been elected by the people on an equal franchise – presumably using the electoral system thought most appropriate in that country. A body that contradicts the first chamber, perhaps elected on an unequal franchise, or perhaps not elected at all – will hence have its judgements questioned. Conflicts between the chambers can lead to claims of illegitimacy – particularly coming from members of the first chamber majority.
Hence both the composition and the functions of second chambers make them fundamentally controversial. This helps explain why calls for second chambers to be reformed are so frequent worldwide.
The challenges of reform
Why, once reform has been called for, is it so difficult to achieve? In a paper published in the Journal of Legislative Studies back in 2002 (co-authored with Mark Sandford), I suggested five common obstacles:
The first is constitutional rigidity. In most countries (the UK excepted), the second chamber’s composition and power is set out in a written constitution, which can only be amended through an arduous process – perhaps involving parliamentary supermajorities, referendums, approval by regional legislatures, etc.
The second obstacle comes from the fact that second chamber reform is often linked to other constitutional arguments. The most obvious of these, which applied to Renzi’s reform, is discussion of the territorial nature of the state. If the second chamber exists to provide territorial representation, then its reform may imply territorial rebalancing, which is politically divisive.
The third obstacle is vested interests. The most obvious vested interest is members of the second chamber themselves – they may not wish to consent to change, but their consent may be required for it to happen. More broadly, those groups (particularly political parties) which benefit from the current arrangements will be resistant to change.
The final two obstacles may operate in opposition to each other. The first of these is the attitude of government. Where second chambers cause difficulties for governments, perhaps blocking policy too often, government may support reform. But in cases where the second chamber is seen as ineffective, governments will tend to resist making it stronger – for fear that their own lives will become more difficult.
The final obstacle therefore is public opinion. In general it’s fair to say that public opinion regarding second chambers is quite mixed – indeed it can even be contradictory. It’s the prerogative of the public to hold contradictory views, and the nature of bicameralism somewhat encourages this. When governments think that second chambers are too interfering, the public will often be resistant to reform because they quite like ministers sometimes being put in their place. At other times, if the second chamber is relatively inactive, it will be a low salience issue – the public will not care enough to demand reform. But public support for reform may be essential – either to push government to act, or to endorse its proposals in a referendum.
Some of these factors were clearly visible in the failure of Renzi’s reform, and a few other examples illustrate further. One is Canada, which is the only other advanced democracy besides the UK to have a wholly appointed second chamber. The Senate was established in the 19th century, drawing elements from both the US and UK models. It formally reflects Canada’s federal structure, but has long been criticised for doing this inadequately – not only by being unelected, due to controversy about the distribution of seats. Various proposals for large-scale packages of reform (such as the Meech Lake Accord of 1987 and Charlottetown Accord of 1992) have failed due to disputes between the provinces, resistance by the national government, and constitutional rigidity.
In Spain the second chamber again formally has a territorial function, including representatives of the regions as well as the smaller provinces. But it is seen as territorially weak. There have been numerous proposals for change, but these are resisted in part by the regional groups that want autonomy – it is not in their interests to see the centre strengthened.
The Irish Senate is also historically seen as weak. It has few formal powers, and in practice the elections in vocational categories are dominated by the political parties. The Prime Minister appoints some members which assures the government a majority. For years there have been calls to either strengthen the vocational model, or move to a territorial model, or abolish the Senate completely. In 2013 the government staged a referendum on Senate abolition, arguing that this would cut the cost of politics. Despite a two thirds majority for abolition in opinion polls prior to the referendum, it was narrowly defeated. Opponents of reform argued that it was a government power grab, and voters didn’t want to take that risk.
UK and Italian reforms
Returning to the UK, the House of Lords has long been controversial. Major clashes occurred between the two chambers in the 1830s, over franchise reform for the House of Commons. By 1911 the government had a commitment to replace the Lords with an elected chamber. During the 20th century numerous proposals were produced, but no large-scale package of reform has been agreed. In 1968, Harold Wilson’s Labour government introduced a bill to change both the composition and powers of the second chamber. This was effectively destroyed by delaying tactics in the House of Commons. In 1997 Tony Blair’s Labour government was elected promising a ‘two-stage’ reform, with the first stage being removal of the hereditary peers – who had inherited their seats. The first stage happened, but despite the establishment of a Royal Commission, and the publication of numerous government proposals, the second stage never occurred.
The most recent failure was over the proposals produced by Nick Clegg during the period of coalition government, which would have turned the House of Lords into a largely or wholly elected chamber. Here I think there are some remarkable similarities to Matteo Renzi:
- In short, both of these political leaders could be viewed as ‘young men in a hurry’. When he became Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg was 43; Renzi was 41 when he became Prime Minister.
- Clegg had been in parliament for just five years beforehand; Renzi not at all.
- Hence Clegg had missed most of the battles over Lords reform, including a divisive set of votes between election and appointment in 2003.
- Both arrived with a kind of ‘star quality’ and high public approval.
- Both seemed to think that they knew better, or were more capable, than the politicians who had repeatedly failed to achieve reform before.
- Both made large-scale and ambitious proposals.
- Both ultimately faced humiliation: Clegg through collapse of his bill, Renzi through failure of his referendum.
In both cases, some comparative and historical knowledge made these failures look inevitable.
So is second chamber reform impossible?
These stories seem quite negative, but second chamber reform is not always impossible – indeed, sometimes it happens. The changes that occur tend to be small and incremental, but sometimes they are very important.
In Australia, where the Senate follows the US model, a change to the electoral system in 1948 (which did not require a constitutional change) transformed the system: a Senate previously dominated by one party adopted a proportional system, and now plays a major and positive role in Australian politics.
In Canada, following the failure of numerous large-scale reforms, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has fundamentally changed the system by establishing an independent commission to recommend candidates for appointment as Senators, and has committed to all new senators being independent of the political parties. This could be seen as a populist move, but may also reinvigorate the Senate. Today, 46 senators in a chamber of 105 are independent.
In the UK, the House of Lords is far from unreformed – it has been changed in a series of small but important steps:
- In 1911 and 1949 the powers of the chamber were changed to remove the veto.
- From 1958 appointment of new members was for life, rather than through inheritance.
- In 1999 most of the remaining hereditary peers were removed.
- In 2000 a House of Lords Appointments Commission was established to recommend independent members (an inspiration for Canada’s new system).
- In 2013 the ability for members to retire was introduced.
Altogether, through these small steps the chamber has been transformed, from one which was all-male, hereditary, and Conservative-dominated, to one which is now more diverse, more confident and more important in the political system.
The conclusion is that second chambers are difficult to reform – for various reasons, but fundamentally connected to disputes about how these chamber should be constructed and what they should do. It’s very difficult to get agreement on large-scale second chamber reform: around the world, it rarely happens.
It’s hence more realistic to think about small, gradual changes. In the UK, reforms have tackled, one by one, the most important problems with the second chamber – adding up over a century to a transformation of what was there before.
So the question for Italy is perhaps what is the most urgent change needed, that could be achieved by a simple reform with widespread support? The feature that makes Italy most unusual worldwide, and creates big potential problems for the political system, is the existence of the confidence vote in the Senate. I therefore wonder whether Italy’s long-running problems with bicameralism could begin to be solved with changing this one isolated and simple thing.
This is the first of several posts related to the LUISS events on 11 June and 12 June. The second post in the series can be found here, and the third post appears here. Follow the Unit on Twitter (@ConUnit_UCL), or subscribe to the blog in order to be notified when future posts in this series are published.
About the author
Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics at UCL, and Director of the Constitution Unit.