Some Conservative colleagues argue vehemently against the introduction of proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons but support an elected second chamber. I point out to them that there is an inherent inconsistency in their argument.
The fundamental argument against the use of PR for parliamentary elections is that it would destroy the core accountability at the heart of our political system. Our existing electoral system facilitates, but does not guarantee, the return of a single party to government. There is thus one body – the party in government – elected through elections to the House of Commons that is responsible for public policy. It has stood for election on a particular platform, against which it can be judged, and – most importantly of all – it can swept from office at the next election. Knowing that, it tends to be responsive to public opinion.
The importance of looking at the firing side, rather than simply concentrating on the hiring side, of our system was well expressed by Karl Popper:
“In The Open Society and its Enemies I suggested that an entirely new problem should be recognised as the fundamental problem of a rational political theory. The new problem, as distinct from ‘Who should rule?’, can be formulated as follows: how is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence?”
As Popper recognised, the current electoral system is central to ensuring that a government can be removed, cleanly and peacefully. There is no divided accountability, no potential for buck passing, no blurring in the eyes of electors as to who is responsible for what. Others may favour such blurring: the distinguished political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, argued for coalition government precisely because it makes it difficult for electors to ‘pin down who is responsible for decisions’. Conservatives, however, support a system where the line of accountability to electors is clear. This was one of the central arguments advanced in 1998 in response to the Jenkins Commission report on the electoral system. In large part, the other arguments flowed from this core point. I can say that with some confidence, as I penned the response.
The core accountability of the present system derives not only from the existence of the first-past-the-post electoral system but also the existence of asymmetrical bicameralism. There is one elected chamber, through which the government is elected and through which it is accountable to the electors. We have the benefit of a second chamber but without the divided accountability that would derive from having a second elected chamber. The House of Lords adds value to the political process by carrying out tasks that complement those of the elected chamber. It does not seek to challenge the electoral supremacy of the House of Commons. It can invite the Commons to think again, but ultimately the Commons is entitled to gets its way.
If the second chamber was to be elected, it would be in a position to demand more powers than the existing House. It may not be co-equal to the first chamber but it would likely demand more powers than the existing House and be willing to exercise those powers. Election would change the terms of trade between the two chambers. There would be no reason why elected members of the second chamber would see the role of the chamber as a complementary one. There would be the potential for conflict between the two. This could lead to stalemate or more often to deals being struck. Such deals would be more likely to be to the benefit of parties and special interests than to the benefit of electors. There would be no clear line of accountability for what emerged or, indeed, what failed to emerge.
There are those who, quite legitimately, do favour divided accountability. They have a valid argument. It is not one I agree with, but I recognise it as an argument I have to counter. My point here is not with those who develop such an argument. My concern here is with those who defend the FPTP electoral system on grounds of core accountability but then argue for an elected second chamber. If you believe in having a political system where there is a clear line of accountability between government and electors, then one needs to defend both the existing electoral system and an appointed second chamber.