How It Works
The secondary mandate system utilises the regional constituencies currently used for the European Parliament elections. Prior to the general election, political parties within each region would select candidates for the second chamber. These candidates would then be put in order by party members at regional primaries, thus contributing an element of direct democracy to the process.
Once the election is called, these lists would be published. On election day itself, voters would go to the polls, as usual, casting a single vote for the person they wished to be their member of the House of Commons. They would not be voting directly for anyone else. Up to this point, the polling day experience will be as it has always been.
Once voters have cast their ballot for their choice for member of the House of Commons, their votes would then be totalled on a party basis within each region. Each party would be awarded regional members of the second chamber in direct proportion to the share of votes it had received in each region in the elections for the House of Commons.
The size of the house
A large house would be difficult to justify on grounds of cost and space. A small house would make it highly unlikely that minority parties would be able to gain seats, therefore undermining the ability of these reforms to deliver a more pluralistic and representative second chamber.
It is therefore proposed that the size of the reformed second chamber should be 300 members, each of the 12 regions returning a maximum of 25 members. This would mean that in order to secure a single regional seat, a party would need to attract 4% of all votes cast within a region.
It is important that each region should return the same number of members in order that, by voting together, less populous areas may counter the concentration of political power in London and the South East.
Any citizen of the UK over the age of 18 would be eligible to become a member of the second chamber, provided they were not already an MP, or a candidate for a seat in the House of Commons. Members would be elected for a single non-renewable term lasting two parliaments, providing each of the parliaments ran for longer than 365 days. No member should be allowed to become an MP until 10 years after the end of their term as a member of the second chamber, whether they have completed that term or not. Members of the second chamber should be able to resign their seats, being replaced by the candidate below them on the party list at the previous general election.
Membership term cycle
With a fixed term membership, it is necessary to put in place some mechanism which avoids a situation whereby all of the members leave on the same date, to be followed by an intake of new members who have no experience of the second chamber. In order to bring some continuity to the process, it is proposed that term cycles be staggered, with 50% of the membership changing at each election.
The second chamber would thus contain 50% of members on the second part of their two parliament term and 50% of members on their first term. At the end of each parliament, the 50% of members who had come to the end of their second term would leave, while the remaining 50% would be placed at the top of their regional party list in the order in which they were originally selected. New candidates would then be added to the list below them.
The existing Life Peers
In order to achieve staggered term cycles, it is suggested that, for the first parliament under the secondary mandate system, the reformed second chamber should consist of 50% existing life peers and 50% members from regional party lists. The 150 most active life peers should be offered the chance to remain in the second chamber for a single parliament. They would take up half of the seats in proportion to the national percentage of votes won by their party.
National party lists
Due to the regional variations between the votes cast for each party, and the likelihood that no party will receive a percentage of votes exactly divisible by 4, it is improbable that any region will fill its quota of 25 members. Those seats remaining unfilled after all of the regions have returned their members should be filled by candidates taken from national party lists in proportion to the national percentage of votes won by each party, The use of a national list will make it unnecessary for parties to impose ministerial candidates onto regional lists.
Why closed lists are necessary
The use of closed lists by political parties is very unpopular amongst democrats and I do not support them for use any other elections. However, the second chamber is unique among our democratic institutions in that it cannot be elected on a direct mandate from voters, as this would seriously compromise the primacy of the Commons.
Primacy is the fulcrum on which our bi-cameral parliamentary system works. If the pivot is too far from the centre, as it is with the wholly appointed House of Lords, then the system will always be weighted too heavily in favour of the Commons. If the pivot is at the centre, as it would be with a directly elected second chamber, then the two houses simply cancel each other out and the system will not function properly. A delicate balance is need to give the second chamber enough democratic weight to do its job.
To achieve this, it is necessary to move the pivot just a few degrees from centre in favour of the Commons. The secondary mandate achieves this by creating a second chamber that is proportional, but indirectly elected, bringing a new equilibrium to the heart of our democracy.
Authority not equality
Closed lists are vital to the operation of the secondary mandate as they provide the one degree of separation from the electorate that is necessary in order to maintain the primacy of the Commons. Open lists would be preferable were the second chamber a separate parliament with its own law making powers. However, the second chamber should be seen as a component of a larger parliament, in which it plays a subsidiary role to its partner, the primary chamber.
While the House of Lords remains composed of appointed members, its role will continue to be subservient. This lack of legitimacy and reliance on patronage has a corrosive effect on democracy. The secondary mandate is designed to counter this by conferring just enough legitimacy on the second chamber to give it the authority to hold the government to account, without making it so powerful that can claim equality.
An element of direct democracy
Paradoxically, it is the closed list which brings an element of direct democracy to the system. It is intended that the secondary mandate should contribute to the restoration of faith in our democratic processes by removing the patronage system presently employed in the House of Lords. However, if voters see that candidates are being imposed on regions, they will quickly come to realise that this is just a form of appointment by other means and the accusations of cronyism will resurface again to undermine public trust.
It is therefore crucial that the process of compiling the closed lists be as transparent as possible. Candidates must be chosen and lists compiled on a strictly one-member, one- vote basis in each region if they are to command the confidence of the electorate.
The threat of the far right
The rise of the British National Party gives us all cause for concern. A second chamber in which 4% of the vote would gain a seat could conceivably result in representation for the far right. However, were the threshold to be set higher, then there would be less chance to open the second chamber to the diversity of views that could encourage the public to re-connect with electoral participation. Clearly, a balance has to be struck between the benefits of plurality and and the need to combat intolerance.
I believe that there are several factors at work in the general election which have been absent from the local council contests where the BNP has gained seats. Significantly, they have done well in those wards where parties of the right have not stood. In several of the wards where they were successful in Burnley, the BNP were given a clear run by the Conservatives. During a general election, it is inconceivable that the Tories will not contest every seat.
The BNP will also have to contest every seat if they wish to gain 4% of the regional vote . That will be expensive, both in financial terms and in the quality of candidates that their hate-filled policies can attract.
In a town like Burnley where the Labour Party have been in power for many years, the BNP represent a protest vote against the status quo. As the Liberal Democrats had worked with Labour on the council, they also suffered from the strong localised sense of disillusionment. Add to that perceived weakness of the Conservatives and the BNP, the only other party standing for Burnley Council, begin to look like a potent vehicle for those who wish a pox on all mainstream parties.
During a general election however, there will be many more minority parties seeking the protest vote. The Greens and The Socialist Alliance could both hope to win seats at the expense of the mainstream. More importantly, the UK Independence Party could directly challenge the BNP by offering a respectable yet non-mainstream alternative for the more patriotically minded voter.
If the BNP were able to win seats, the ensuing focus of attention on their methods and policies may well prove their undoing. Stuart Caddy, Labour leader of Burnley Council, who has had to contend with them as his main opposition in the chamber, told the Guardian on 21st June 2003 “The main problem with the BNP councillors is they never participate in discussions” Such behaviour has made it difficult for opponents to dispel the lies that they propagate. The BNP has a one-to-one dialogue with its electorate on the doorstep that has so far proved difficult to expose as being based on false promises and untruths.
We need to find a means to interpolate ourselves into that conversation and so shine a light into the dark corner where the BNP defecate on our democracy. Their presence in the second chamber would expose them to the full glare of media attention and allow all genuinely pluralist democratic parties to stand together in revealing the BNP as a party whose only commitment is to stirring up intolerance and hatred in our society. We must not allow them to deter us from creating a genuinely democratic second chamber.