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For decades reform of the House of Lords has been an issue which, despite widespread support, has never seen substantive systemic change even though over the decades there has been tinkering at the edges. However, as the recent controversy over Boris Johnson’s summer honours list shows these changes have not dealt with the fundamental problems of accountability and legitimacy at the heart of the Lords. In this climate this article proposes that the simplest way to reform the House of Lords, is by introducing a system of indirectly electing peers based on the results of general elections. 

The origins of this idea come from an unlikely source namely the singer Billy Bragg, who for 20 years has campaigned for what he has term a “secondary mandate” system for Lords reform, although this proposal does not follow all of his ideas. The basic premise of the system is that rather than setting up an election system for the Lords, as was proposed in the failed 2012 Lords Reform Bill, during a general election to the House of Commons all the constituency votes in a region are added together and then based on the results a set number of in the Lords are allocated to the competing parties Lords lists’. The only other relevant factor, although not necessarily unique to this system, is that the newly indirectly elected peers would be barred from running for re-election ending the job for life “retirement home” culture of the Lords at present. 

Now another system for indirect election has also been proposed specifically having a “chamber of the nations and regions” where representatives are drawn from devolved assemblies and local government, but the benefit of this proposal over that one is that under this article’s proposed system the mandate and complexion of the Lords would be tied to the results in the Commons and thus the peers would be unable to challenge the supremacy of the Commons. Indeed, an important argument in favour of this proposal over other Lords reform proposals is that this proposal doesn’t require significant new logistical planning. General elections remain the same with the only difference being that once the votes have been counted at a constituency level, the results are sent to a regional returning officer who then calculates and allocates the Lords seats for a region. This system is also not without precedent as prior to Brexit European elections were elected using this regional party list system and the European regions are another simple alternative system. Therefore, unlike other systems which could take time to bed and adapt to this one is a simple addition to the status quo. 

However, in adding to the status quo it the other significant benefit this system over other proposals brings is that this proposal also changes the status quo for general election, making First-Past-The-Post constituency voting fairer and more representative of party support but in a way which doesn’t require the public awareness or interest in a new system, as has been an issue for the new post of Police and Crime Commissioners. But in changing the status quo for constituency votes this proposal still respects the outcome of the 2011 AV referendum which found heavy support for retaining the current electoral system. Your vote may not elect your chosen party in your constituency, but it may get them a regional peer. Conversely, if a party makes controversial or scandalous selections for a regional peerage list then voters in a region have an opportunity to penalise you twice over, talk about a plague on both your houses. 

Now the proposed system will not deal with all the problems the Lords at present. The power of patronage will probably remain, and the regional party lists could be used to select the loyal over the brilliant. But patronage will always be a part of the political system and this proposal at least reduces the scope for that patronage to be used with a set number of seats per region the days of the Lords being the second largest legislative chamber in the world would be gone and the makeup would no longer be determined by the whims of governments but by votes.  

Another criticism that could be made of this proposal is that it undermines the focus of the Lords on independence removing the useful element of unaligned, or crossbench, lords who are appointed to the Lords based on their personal expertise. However, apart from the great number of peers who are former parliamentarians the absence of re-election prospects mitigates against the most powerful ways parties can control members and secondly, nothing stops parties in the indirect election system from nominating experts, indeed parties already do in the present system, for example; the doctor and scientist Lord Robert Winston is as a Labour member, and the businesswomen Baroness Karen Brady is a Conservative. However, if concerns remained then there is nothing stopping an indirect election system being amended to include provisions that bar members from having held political office of any kind.

Whilst this is an imperfect proposal, it does reduce the scope for the bad outcomes and introduces an indirect system of legitimacy and accountability into the Lords.

Alex is a researcher at Bright Blue. [Image: UK Parliament]