House of Lords reform is stuck between a few different futures - with a range of groups who can either veto, or strongly slow down, any particular option winning.
There are several ways different approaches can win, as well as a very plausible scenario that nothing changes at all.
As a rule, the solution to a problem where everyone fails to get behind the same option is not to introduce a new one. But that’s no fun.
What I want to sketch out here is a synthesis approach that weaves the different goals of different approaches, rather than the specific solutions.
I call this the House of Review approach - an elected house that fits into current Parliamentary dynamics, and puts a strong focus on being a place of improvement and scrutiny. A lot of the mechanics are familiar, but with some new twists that help reconcile seemingly divergent goals in a coherent approach.
Read on for how it works, the thinking behind it, and then why the solution should appeal to the three key groups of democrats, politicians, and technocrats - and why their current approaches might end badly for them.
The key features here are:
- PR party-based elections.
- Post-election roster management.
- A party-of-last-resort mechanism for non-voters.
To work through the steps: At the same time as the general election, there is a second ballot where you select a party (or no party at all) to populate the House of Review. Based on the result of this ballot, parties are allocated seats to fill.
Parties have two lists of people to fill their seats. There is a standard PR list of people who will be elected in order. Then there is a much wider group of ‘aligned specialists’. This group is not elected immediately, but a selection is appointed by the party for shorter terms (allowing flexibility based on the known agenda, which might be quite different depending on who actually wins the election). Their allocation is split 50/50 - if a party is due 50 seats, they elect 25 down the standard list, and have 25 to fill from the specialist list.
Additionally, there is a ‘no party/crossbench’ list of non aligned experts and voices. Everyone who doesn’t vote is claimed by this list. As such, the size of the ‘crossbench’ goes up and down with turnout. The governance mechanics of the cross-bench process is reviewed periodically by a Citizen Assembly.
So for a 400 seat chamber, following the results and turnout of the 2019 Common election, 131 seats would be allocated to the crossbench, while the largest party (Conservatives) would have 117, split between regular and specialist seats. Overall, partisan-aligned figures are the majority, but the division between the two kinds of appointment and the crossbench create a fluid arrangement of groups.
This is taking a lot of the functional elements of the current House of Lords and fitting them into a democratic framework.
There’s a strong idea that expertise is important, with a route for people to be Reviewers that is very unlike standing for election - while still ultimately constrained by electoral mandates. Shorter term specialist seats allow for temporary secondments, expanding the potential pool of knowledge, without having a huge chamber at any given time.
The difference between election and appointment is a spectrum rather than a hard divide. Rather than an X% elected and Y% appointed approach, this leaves it more with parties about how they want to manage their permanent and specialist members. Parties can even have a little cronyism, as a treat, but not for life, and parties have to make choices about who is important enough to keep.
The resulting chamber is weird enough it’s not competing for primacy with the Commons. The crossbench mechanism prevents it being a PR chamber that highlights the difference with the Commons. Taking non-participation seriously also provides a democratic reason to have a substantial non-party political element. But as it is also a choice of the ballot, this is compatible with any future move to mandatory voting, and as a party-of-last-resort might be popular in its own right.
This slightly more flexible membership is compatible with the Brown review’s idea of mayors, devolved leaders, having speaking rights, or being able to propose legislation through the chamber. This could act in part as a body of scrutiny for other layers of government where that was appropriate.
With the crossbench selection process. I would convene a citizens assembly to work out the process as a democratic way to appoint people on behalf of people who don’t vote (or as a party-of-last-resort for people who want to choose it). This would effectively be writing operating principles for the successor to the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
There’s a few different mechanisms possible here, but personally I’d be looking for a small proportion of non-partisan “governance generalists” (continuity to preserve institutional knowledge about how to effectively work) and a wider specialist list who is brought in and out. A citizens assembly might decide to appoint a portion (or the entire allowance) of seats by sorition. I think they probably wouldn’t, but if they did, that’d be fine.
Ok, play it cool, but the stars are aligning. You have a new government, with some commitment and interest in an elected second chamber. The leadership hates PR, but that’s nothing new - and might work to our advantage here. Lots of people in the party are for it, are there dynamics where PR for the second chamber helps resolve internal arguments? There’s a path where this works out.
Against this we have the reason why this has been failing for literally a century - there’s a lot of dislike of where we are, but no real consensus on where to go. You need to lead here, but take a path that others can follow you on.
Let’s talk about the election nerd stuff. Maybe you love STV because it keeps constituencies and breaks open candidate selection from parties, but that works against acceptance here. Overlapping constituencies is challenging the role of MPs in the first chamber, and we need to have something that gives parties some of the power of patronage they’re giving up here, otherwise they’ll wreck it. Party list PR (even in this split form) gives you both something you want. On another angle, STV for the Lords makes it less likely to win that for the Commons at some future point.
We also need to buy off the technocrats by showing how their love of expertise can be managed inside a democratic house (and that we can do much better on this than the current status quo). Post-election roster management is a bit unorthodox but it meets both your requirements. People are there because of the electoral mandate of the party while the actual people are not the same identikit politicians you get in the other place - the parties are going to be pulling in the experts they need to make their case. This helps shield the approach from the (vaguely anti-democratic) complaint of making more politicians.
I’ve been assuming you’re the electoral reforming sort - but maybe you’re a deliberative democrat, wanting a House of Citizens selected by lottery. The mechanisms are in here to make your case. Using a citizens assembly to set the terms of the ‘cross bench’ selection is a foot in the door - and if they choose to use their seats for experts or citizens is up to them, and may change over time.
I’ll be honest here - there’s a chance this works out, but it’s all fallen apart so many times before. There’s a window of opportunity, but a lot of forces against it. Some of those forces cannot be appeased and have to be beaten, but others can be co-opted by finding a synthesis approach.
I know I know, this doesn’t seem important. In the short term, you don’t want to have an opinion on this. You want to kick it into the long grass, do it next parliament, maybe create a commission or citizen’s assembly to look into it.
But eventually you do have an interest in what this looks like - because if that process comes back with something popular, and it builds enough support, you might actually have to do it or be stuck with what you currently have. Here is why you, in the long run, want a solution that looks a bit like this.
You want different things from the second chamber when you’re in government and not in government. The key thing is to get something that is constructive for you in both scenarios. You want something that is subordinate, but not completely toothless. You want something that opens up a slightly different arena for politics, that is constructive when in government or opposition.
Party politics is a team sport, but making policy involves people asking awkward questions. Effective scrutiny is part of getting results, Part of the value of the current House of Lords is a release valve that helps manage climb downs in a way that isn’t a partisan fight. Letting this sort of process play out elsewhere and selectively accepting the results has value in government and opposition. A very partisan second chamber doesn’t work for this in quite the same way.
The House of Review approach tries to maintain the fundamental parliamentary dynamic while introducing elections. The House of Commons is the primary house, and the second chamber through the specialist lists and cross-bench mechanism is not recreating the same kind of elected politicians, or a pure PR chamber that raises legitimacy questions about the Commons. It has legitimacy to do the things it needs to do, but is built in such a way that it’s not massively changing how the Commons works or relates to the other chamber.
As well as their primary function in bringing useful voices into the legislative process, the double list system has some continued use in internal party management - allowing for jobs for useful MPs who lose a seat. At the same time, you have limited seats to fill - but this is also to your advantage. Moving appointments to parties gives you a bit more latitude in selection (in government or opposition), but the limited seats also gives a clear reason to say no.
The goal here is to end up with a more effective version of what we already have - but shored up with the democratic legitimacy that makes it stable. By taking an approach that preserves much of current ways of operating, while taking in the key points of critics, the transition to a new second chamber would be minimally disruptive and add new strengths into the system whether your party is in government or opposition.
This is the longest one because I don’t think the current situation is going well for you, but unlike the democrats, I’m not sure you realise it.
The House of Review approach takes a lot of its general goals from your idea of an apolitical and appointed “House of Experts” (or Senate following the Canadian example), while trying to realise them through politicised democratic means.
Your approach to date is incremental change to convert the House of Lords into an appointed home of expertise. No big revolution, just an ongoing pressure and direction. This approach has had a lot of success, but there are big barriers to completing this transformation.
Your ideal solution of this House of Experts seems tantalisingly close, which leads you to embrace short-termist approaches to reform - but these undermine your long term interests. Creating a democratic chamber with technocratic purpose provides a long term and stable approach that gives you more of what you want.
A key value you see in a House of Experts is the ability to use expertise to check elected politicians. But when the current House of Lords is threatened, you turn around and tell those politicians what they want to hear. You point out that a wholly elected system isn’t that popular or important to people, and would be a lot of political capital they could be using on other things. Yes, there are problems, but wouldn’t it be easier just to make some small changes that deal with the worst of that, and rather than throwing out the bits that actually work?
Because there is common ground in stopping big change, there is a misunderstanding that everyone agrees on what the House of Lords is for. Every few years you write your letters and reports saying “Please Mr. Government, stop doing cronyism and corruption, it’s ruining our nice technocratic chamber”, and… nothing happens. The problem is the cronyism is the point. It’s a key appeal of the current system that keeps it in place. The same inertia that protects your experts-in-robes, also protects the worst people who have taken refuge in the Lords.
Your defence of what’s currently working is earnest and well meant, but is also providing cover to the parts you hate. No one has to come out and say “actually we’re opposed to an elected House of Lords because the current cronyism mostly works for us” because your much more palatable argument is making the case for them.
For political expediency, you tie your projects together. For the moment this is effective, but might mean one day you lose everything when an elected chamber sweeps this all away.
You might say I’m being unfair - and your incremental approach is a plausible way of getting the true technocratic chamber you want. If we get a stronger system of independent appointments, remove the bishops and the remaining hereditary peers, and put a cap on numbers, we have ended up pretty close to where we’d be if we’d set out to design it from scratch. None of these are big changes, and there’s clear public support for all of them.
But while your changes are on paper smaller - they run into the same problem of an elected house in that, rather than do nothing, you are asking the government to spend time and money making their own lives harder. The big problem a new government has is being under-powered in the Lords, coming at the end of a long spell of the other side making more appointments. They have the ability to fix this by doing lots of appointments - and the result is incredibly messy.
From the technocratic point of view, the fix is obvious. Create a more apolitical appointment process that strengthens the cross-bench, and this unlocks a lot of retirements knowing they are not directly benefiting the other side. Political appointments remain, but less are needed to improve the government’s hand - and it is less all-or-nothing because the central balance is increasingly held by the technocratic cross-bench.
Achieving this approach would be a big victory for the House of Experts model - but like everyone else’s reforms, it is asking a government to take time out of their schedule to do something to their disadvantage. Looking at the rest of their manifesto, politicians might ask, this seems a bit slow, do we have to do it now? Can’t we just leave it as it is, let it get a little bit bigger, while we deliver the policy agenda we were elected on?
You might make arguments about long term benefits, but these are the same arguments everyone else has been making and you’ve been undermining. While inertia works with you in seeing off big threats to your appointed technocratic model - completing this reform is more difficult than it seems.
The incremental approach has been racking up long term problems. You have completely changed what a ‘Lord’ means, and are wearing the ermine of your slain enemy. This was useful in sneaking in, but to the outside, your problem is now that people don’t see the difference. The House of Lords is so unpopular, and you now are the House of Lords. You can try and wreck bigger reforms and hope the small incremental approach continues to work for you - but there’s just a real risk that in your alliance with the status quo, you are too much part of the problem if those reforms start to gain pace.
So, taking this on board - if there’s energy towards big reform, how can you move that towards the outcome you want? Because your project to date has worked by small degrees, it hasn’t had to engage with popularity. There’s no pressure group out there making the earnest case to the public rather than whispering to politicians to slow down. But that doesn’t mean this is an impossible catch-up job. You know an appointed house is not that popular, but you also know another house full of politicians isn’t a slam dunk. If you get this bounced to a commission or an assembly - there’s a chance that, on reflection, the virtues of your approach will win through.
In your thinking you need to embrace democracy as the answer, not the cause, of your problems. Your attitude of “actually the most functional part of the British system is the least democratic aspect of it” is corrosive and hurts the whole system over time. Democracy can mean a lot of different things - it’s time to think about how you can work within that framework, rather than undermine it.
You are not going to get what you really want through the status quo - it’s time to think bigger. An elected House of Review, with strong technocratic vibes, can more strongly justify greater use of powers to delay legislation and win compromises. Finding a synthesis approach with the democrats gives you more of what you want in the long run.
The House of Review is one possible synthesis approach - taking the things you value, and articulating them in democratic language. It’s not the only such synthesis, but it’s the kind of way you should try to think about.
As I said, the solution to a problem where everyone fails to get behind the same option is not to introduce a new one. It’s also a trap to get too attached to particularly fiddly or clever approaches. There is no shortage of clever ideas in the world, and change is more directly about creating and unlocking coalitions that can move things along. Clever ideas can be part of this, but only part.
So while I quite like the roster management and party-of-last-resort approaches - I think the important thing in the above is thinking through what different factions actually want. Rather than the solutions they bring up, what do they actually want to do? Are these actually incompatible? How can we build coalitions that advance a better solution? We might need clever ideas to stick the landing, but long before that there needs to be a willingness to reflect on what is important, and listen to the problems other people have - if not always their solutions.
Header image from ChatGPT