Rallying against undesirable change

As was mentioned in the thread on a previous post, I have contributed a short piece to Litmus, a publication prepared by ConservativeHome, LeftFootForward and LibDemVoice and being distributed at the party conferences.  I was invited to express my views on proposals for electoral reform and reform (aka abolition) of the House of Lords.  So I did.  ConservativeHome has posted my contribution, which you can read here.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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17 Responses to Rallying against undesirable change

  1. djb13 says:

    An interesting article. I might challenge the idea that the electoral system not be replaced because people are satisfied with the current one. FPTP to AV is, in reality, a minor technical adjustment of no great constitutional significance as policy (although it has for more importance as politics). We do not require, for instance, as a point of principle, public consent to a minor re-organisation within boards of NHS trusts.

  2. djb13 says:

    Having thought about it more, a referendum on House of Lords reform (of real significance to the constitution) is far more justified than a referendum on AV.

    • Lord Norton says:

      djb13: You are not alone in questioning the logic of holding a referendum on AV but not on getting rid of the second chamber.

      • Chris K says:

        Especially as, presumably, we won’t be given a referendum on the voting system for the new Second Chamber!

      • Croft says:

        Exactly Chris – PR for the second chamber is simply presented as a given without need for consultation or consent.

        I agree with much LN says but as ever I think the argument has a central flaw. Being able to throw the government out is a zero sum game. We can’t indicate why we are throwing them out or which bit, and it is bits, of the new government’s policies we actually support. So government can pursue or not pursue things they know perfectly well the public want/don’t want and there is nothing in FPTP we can practically do about it – as the exact same issue would occur at our first chance to punish them. This enables politicians to shut down debate pretty effectively – for instance polling suggests a comfortable majority in favour of cutting International Development spending as part of overall spending cuts yet we had all three main parties promising to ring-fence/increase it over the parliament.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I don’t think an alternative electoral system will solve that problem, especially not if it produces post-election bargaining that generates compromises that no one favours. (Nor would it solve the particular case you identify where there is all-party agreement.) The solution in my view is to strengthen the processes by which Parliament can hear the views of people in between elections.

      • Croft says:

        Except in a more fractured – pure PR – electoral system with many smaller more issue specific parties single issues can be more prominent. Now I don’t favour PR but I don’t think we can defend FPTP too strongly for its perfections – even if on balance we prefer it to other options.

        Other than referenda I’m not sure what mechanisms by which parliament might be forced to take on the public’s views. We all know politicians saying they want to listen is usually a pro forma ‘conversation’ designed to window dress a conclusion long reached by the party leadership. Public grievance/petition committees are all well and good but like thoughtful parliamentary reports – generally dismissed unless they assist the governments determined position.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: FPTP isn’t the perfect electoral system. There isn’t one. I regard FPTP as the least imperfect. One can identify various flaws; it is just that the flaws in the alternatives are greater.

        I don’t rate referendums as they are rather blunt weapons with a host of deficiencies. One needs something more flexible, subtle and indeed qualitative. The merits of a case need to be considered alongside who is shouting the loudest. I don’t think there is a single mechanism that is appropriate. Rather, Parliament should be using a mix, including as appropriate surveys. Surveys can elicit material that cannot usually be gleaned from referendums.

      • Croft says:

        “Rather, Parliament should be using a mix, including as appropriate surveys. Surveys can elicit material that cannot usually be gleaned from referendums.”

        Surveys may be able to give information refs don’t but parties spend millions already on focus groups and issue based polling. I think it indisputable that parties know what the public think on many issues but actually making them translate that into policy is another thing. The parties do correctly calculate that since the public can’t target/punish them in any issue specific sense they have a huge margin to ignore public wishes in many areas provided they can create a sufficiently crude dividing line on a limited issue/issues to win on election day.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: The parties do (to some extent – they are not that wealthy) but Parliament doesn’t. That is my point. I think there is considerable scope for Parliament to develop its capacity for finding out what people think about issues (as well as the priority they give to them).

  3. franksummers3ba says:

    Replying to everyone:
    I thought that Lord Norton made some good points in his article. I certainly believe that if one concurs with his repeated implication that whatever reforms go on in the second chamber they will be tantamount to abolishing it then every possible precatuion should be taken to see this change gets full scrutiny. In addition, the move itself is in my opinion suicidal. Not in the sense that I will look at BBCA the next day and there will be no more home country but in a real sense.

    On the other hand, the way Lords is at this moment can hardly be sacrosanct it seems to me. It has known steady significant change. Perhaps elections can address some issues of concern. There is a kind of electoralism that is kin to economic policy and another that is kin to fiscal discipline. Sometimes the latter can (among other good effects defend against the former.
    An example only:
    The new law would declare that there are Seats in the House of Lords and there are a new kind of Peers of the Realm made up of the same people except formally including the Lords Spiritual. Only Peers of the Realm may be holders of the Seats in the House of Lords.There may be as many Peers as chance dictates but only say 555 Seats. The Honors List of Life Peers would receive 300 seats. A number would hold seats coterminously with Commons Party leadership and be appointed by them, others would be eleceted at large by all the Peers, others (only a few very special ones)would be guaranteed life service in the seats by the House or the Appointments Committee. Bishops might be more or less as they are but a few would be elected by the Bishops as a whole and maybe one or two from among the Bishops by the Clergy as a whole. The hereditaries would fill another 125 seats by elections to both life and limited tenure seats from among their own number. What ever few were left would be in the gift of the House as a whole to those seen as unseated and exceptional including Peers created for the purpose. The point of all this would be electoral discipline and transparency, the growth of institutions and the ability to say that the system was functional in an electoral world. The only constitutional change is that in a sense all Bishops under this formula are now Lords Spiritual. The Greater Peerage including all these voter-candiates would still be a great honor bestowed without reference to elections per se. The democratic aspirations of Commons would be little challenged. Even if a few seats were set aside for popular election from within these groups of Peers then the nature of the instituion would endure. The good and bad would be the electoral process all its distrations, disciplines, rubrics and influenceswould be part of the Second Chamber.
    In the global view of all political systems this would be a small change compared to losing an aristocratic Second Chamber entirely.

  4. djb13 says:

    Lord Norton, how would you favour giving Parliament the ability to find out the people’s views, and how would you hold them accountable to sticking to them? I’m deeply attached to the idea of a more participatory democracy, but I can’t help but feel that after a brief honeymoon period, focus groups and citizens juries will end up being filled with bores and obsessives (i.e., people like me), because people will recognise that they’re being ignored by Parliament and the government.

  5. A solid defence for existing political systems or, if one prefers, cutting critiques of the reforms on offer: remedies which are arguably worse than the diseases they are meant to cure.

    Your central criticism of AV, that it ‘effectively engineers a majority by giving the same weight to an elector’s second and third preferences as to the first preference’, raises what I consider a valid question: why doesn’t an elector whose first (or second) choice does make the cut also have a chance for another kick at the can? In a large field of candidates, I may vote initially for candidate A to keep out candidate B, but on discovering that my fears were overblown upon B’s dropping from the list (while no candidate enjoyed majority support), I may then wish to vote for candidate C, but have no option to do so.

    An elected House of Lords would also seem to undermine one of the objectives of the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’, as elected peers would doubtless feel obliged to earn their keep through legislating and instituting new layers of bureaucracy that would undermine the ‘pushing Government down’ initiative.

    More damning still, Lords reform elevates an adherence to the simplistic, ideological obstinacy of ‘democratic legitimacy’ over the prudential practice of the tested norm of appointment.

  6. djb13 says:

    Stephen MacLean, I think your criticism of an elected House of Lords leading to more legislation is unjustified. Why should more legislators lead to more legislation? If anything, an elected proportional House of Lords, fighting against an elected majoritarian House of Commons will act as a blocking agent, or at very least increasing the schlerosis of the political system, reducing legislation.

    • Croft says:

      I think you’re making an assumption that two elected houses are necessarily in opposition to each other. A crude transposition of PR onto the Lords would at the last election have produced a house with a significantly larger coalition government majority which is plainly unlikely to deliver what you suggest.

  7. djb13 says:

    Croft, in this odd moment of coalition politics, you are indeed correct. However, ordinarily there will be a government majority in the Commons but not in the Lords.

    • Croft says:

      Well if AV passes then coalition will be a perpetual state with majorities in both houses though obviously not if FPTP remains. However the blocking ability of the Lords is in effect being reduced by the fixed term parliament (by 25%) and in any case doesn’t (practically) apply on any financial matters so even a labour dominated Lords would have no influence on the cuts agenda.

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