Frequently Asked Questions
Why not just abolish the House of Lords?
Abolishing the second chamber would further consolidate power in the hands of the Prime Minister. An important part of the role of the second chamber is to assist MPs in holding the government of the day to account by scrutinising legislation. A democratically legitimate house would do the job much better.
Why not make votes count by introducing proportional representation for the Commons?
Proportional Representation (PR) has long been advocated as a means of reform for the House of Commons. However it does not yet have support in the country. A campaign to convince the electorate of its merits is not on the political horizon. Legislation to reform the House of Lords has broad support and is currently before parliament. Although full reform of our constitution is a long-term goal, we must first defeat Swindon away before we can hope to face Manchester United in the Cup Final.
Why not directly elect the House of Lords?
The two chamber, or bicameral, system of parliament that exists in Britain works on the principle that one house has more legitimacy than the other. Whilst both houses can initiate legislation, our second chamber, the House of Lords, must eventually accept the will of the primary chamber, the House of Commons. This concept, called primacy, rests on the fact that MPs are directly elected by their constituents, giving them greater legitimacy than the unelected members of the House of Lords.
If the reformed chamber were to be directly elected, then members would have equal legitimacy with MPs, and so the Commons would lose its primacy. The result would be democratic gridlock as each house claimed that it alone was the true representative of the people.
Why shouldn’t the electorate put the lists of candidates in order of preference themselves?
Because the very act of making a mark on a ballot paper confers a direct mandate to the candidate. For example, the Scottish Parliament uses a form of PR called the Additional Member system. Electors cast two votes, one for a candidate and one for a party. Candidates are elected on a first past the post basis and party seats are allocated proportionally from a list. Because voters actually marked the ballot paper in order to elect both types of member, the end result is that both successful individual and party list candidates sit together in the parliament chamber and have equal legitimacy.
So if, in order to elect members of a reformed second chamber, voters were required to put candidates in order of preference, in doing so they would be giving them a direct mandate and the same legitimacy as MPs. The primacy of the Commons would be compromised.
Wouldn’t an elected second chamber just mirror the Commons?
No, because of proportional representation (PR). For instance, the last election delivered to the Labour Party a majority of 165 seats in the Commons. Yet they only won 41% of the votes. Therefore they would only get 41% of the seats in the reformed second chamber.
Wouldn’t PR lead to stagnation?
It has been suggested that, because the government of the day would not have a majority in the second chamber, it would be unable to get its legislation through and stagnation would ensue. Whilst the increase in legitimacy would mean that the government would face a more stringent revising chamber, it should be possible to frame legislation which protects primacy. For nearly 100 years now, an informal agreement, the Salisbury convention, has made it possible for The Labour Party, which has never had a majority in the House of Lords, to get its business through.
Wouldn’t PR make the second chamber more legitimate than the Commons?
By proposing that membership should be broadly representative of the parties' relative voting strength at the previous general election (see White Paper, The House of Lords: Completing The Reform (Cm 5291) Nov. 2001), the government accepts that proportionality alone cannot confer primacy.
Would members of the second chamber have constituents?
The nature of the work of the second chamber means that, as at present, members would not have constituents. The government has rightly stipulated that reform must not disrupt the relationship between elected members of the Commons and their constituents.