In December, the commission chaired by Gordon Brown for the Labour Party proposed ambitious reform of the House of Lords, to create an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’. In this first of two posts considering Labour’s options for Lords reform, Meg Russell dissects the proposals, in the light of previous UK and international experience. She suggests that the Brown report leaves much detail unspecified, making ambitious Lords reform unlikely before the second or third year of a Labour government.
The commission chaired for Labour by Gordon Brown, reported in December, proposing that the House of Lords should be replaced by an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’. This post explores the merits of its proposals, and how feasible they are, as the first of two posts considering Labour’s options for Lords reform. The two posts summarise arguments in a report to be jointly published on Friday by the Constitution Unit, the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge.
The Brown commission wanted a reformed House of Lords to underpin and strengthen the UK’s territorial settlement. Much of its report was focused on economic inequalities and the benefits of decentralising power, plus a desire to strengthen the Union and discourage separatism. The proposals for the second chamber appeared late in the report, after various proposed reforms to devolution, and were intended to tie the whole system together.
Whether such an Assembly of the Nations and Regions could successfully meet these goals would depend on three things: its functions, its composition, and the practicalities of implementation. Each of these is considered briefly below, in the light of previous Lords reform proposals, and overseas experience.
Since December’s general election, proposals for Lords reform have abounded – emerging from both government briefings, and proposals floated during Labour’s leadership contest. Meg Russell, a well-established expert on Lords reform, reviews the wide variety of options floated, their past history, and their likelihood of success – before the topic may get referred to the government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission.
Reform of the House of Lords is a perennial in British politics. Elections come and go, political parties often make promises to reform the Lords, and generally political obstacles of various kinds – or simply just other political priorities – get in the way. As indicated below, and chronicled in my 2013 book The Contemporary House of Lords, some proposals still under discussion have been mooted for literally hundreds of years. Occasionally breakthroughs occur: significant reforms included the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 (which altered the chamber’s powers), the Life Peerages Act 1958 (which began moving it away from being an overwhelmingly hereditary chamber), and the House of Lords Act 1999 (which greatly accelerated that process, removing most remaining hereditary peers). Since this last reform there have been numerous proposals, through government white papers, parliamentary committee reports and even a Royal Commission (which reported in 2000), but little actual reform. The last major government bill on Lords reform — abandoned in 2012 — was under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Its sponsor, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, no doubt came to agree with renowned constitutional historian Lord (Peter) Hennessy, who has dubbed Lords reform the ‘Bermuda Triangle of British politics’.
Nonetheless, following December’s general election the topic is firmly back on the agenda. The Conservative manifesto flagged it as a possible matter for discussion by the promised Commission on the Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights (which is yet to be established). Various proposals from the government side have been floated in the media – the most eye-catching perhaps being a suggestion that the House of Lords might move to York. Meanwhile, other Lords reform ideas have featured in debates during the Labour Party leadership (and deputy leadership) contest. As often occurs, the topic has also been made salient by concerns about new appointments to the chamber.Continue reading →
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.Continue reading →
Australians head to the polls tomorrow to vote in a rare double dissolution election. Harrison Miller and John Uhr discuss the constitutional issues raised by the election and look ahead to the possible result. They suggest that the most likely outcome is that the incumbent centre-right coalition will be re-elected with a reduced majority, though little can be taken for granted given the country’s political instability in recent years.
A week after the UK’s dramatic EU Referendum, Australians are headed to the polls for an election of their own on tomorrow. While not on the scale of Brexit, the 2016 Australian general election is noteworthy nonetheless, with several significant constitutional issues in play.
Australia’s last national election in September 2013 led to the loss of the Rudd-led Labor government which won office under Julia Gillard’s leadership in 2010. The conservative government now led by Malcolm Turnbull won the last election under the leadership of Tony Abbott, who won office for the conservative Liberal-National coalition with a comfortable majority of 15 seats in the 150 member House of Representatives. But Australian Prime Ministers do not get that much comfort: Labor’s Rudd was replaced by Gillard who later was replaced by Rudd. The serving Liberals won office with Abbott who was replaced less than a year ago, in September 2015, by Turnbull, who had earlier led the party in opposition only to be replaced as opposition leader by Abbott. The last Australian Prime Minister serving a complete term was John Howard, from 2004 to 2007.
The Australian parliamentary system has a relatively short three year term for the 150 member House of Representatives. Normally, national elections allow voters to elect all seats in the lower house and one half of the seats in the Senate or upper house, whose members serve six year terms. Next weekend’s election is quite unusual in that it is a ‘double dissolution’ election for all 150 lower house seats and all 76 Senate seats. The Australian constitution gives governments the power to dissolve both houses if the Senate, which shares legislative power with the lower house, has frustrated government legislation. The Senate is elected under a system of proportional representation which has meant that most governments face an upper house with significant numbers of minor party members. Most of the time, governments learn to live with this lack of power. The last double dissolution was under the Hawke Labor government in 1987. The 2016 double dissolution arose from a bill to establish a commission to regulate union practices in the building industry which was twice rejected by the Senate.
The most significant changes to the system for elections to the Australian Senate since 1984 received Royal Assent last week. Harry Hobbs and George Williams explain the background to the legislation, which will give voters more control over how their preferences are distributed. They argue that, in reflecting the principle that candidates should be elected based on the size of their vote rather than opaque preference deals, the changes are a major improvement.
After a marathon debate lasting over 28 hours, the Australian Senate has passed the most significant changes to its method of election since 1984. The changes are contained in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016, which was given Royal Assent on 21 March, just in time for the upcoming Federal election – though a quixotic High Court challenge to overturn the legislation has been launched.
The Australian Senate
The Senate differs from the House of Lords in several important respects. Australia’s upper house is an elected body. Section 7 of the Australian Constitution provides that:
The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.
Since 1949 the Senate has been elected under a proportional voting system. As six Senators are elected for each state at each normal half-Senate election, a candidate requires 14.3 per cent of the vote to be chosen. A candidate who fails to reach this quota is excluded and their votes transferred to the voters’ second preference. This process continues until all six Senators have been elected. This proportional method of selection means that the government of the day typically does not command a majority in the chamber.