Could Clegg’s system of choice for Lords Reform kill it?


5:07 pm - May 12th 2011

by Rupert Read    


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I am delighted to see that Nick Clegg is proceeding with reform of the House of Lords. It is vital to our being (becoming) a democratic country.

But, Lords reform might be severely hampered if it is perceived to be bringing in a variation of the very system that the British electorate has just voted down. This makes AV-Plus or STV (which is simply AV in multi-member constituencies) extremely undesirable as potential methods for use in elections to the upper house.

So I was dismayed to see that Clegg is contemplating STV as his preferred method.

This could invite contempt from the media, the public, and from the Lords themselves!

This is not just a techy or dweeby point. Picking the wrong voting system for Lords reform could kill it. All the opponents of reform are looking for is an excuse.

As I recently argued on LibDemVoice, surely instead we have to look either to AMS (e.g. in the Scots version, or better still in the classic ‘1 vote’ version that is Green Party policy: where you simply have a large-enough top-up to ensure proportionality) or to a fully list-based PR-system.

The worry that the latter would lead to party-domination can be countered by having open lists.

Do we really want to wait another 100 years to reform the upper house, just because of a poor choice of voting system for electing it with?

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About the author
This is a guest post. Rupert Read is a Green Party councillor and ran as a MEP candidate in Eastern region in 2009. He blogs at Rupert's Read and Comment is free
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Reader comments


The important thing as I see it for a system in the Lords is that it needs to retain the ability to have cross-benchers. Crossbenchers are really the only reason the Lords as an institution isn’t a complete waste of time.

As far as proportional systems go, surely STV is the only one that could fulfill that criteria? I independents can stand under AMS (e.g. Margo MacDonald), but they are put at significant disadvantages compared to candidates standing with a top-up list behind them, as excess votes would only be wasted in the case of in independent.

Any system that uses a list isn’t really right for the Lords, I think. Single vote AMS (or single vote AV+… )would be just lovely for the Commons though.

Also, the two biggest weaknesses of STV are probably the need to have massive consituencies to ensure a uniform and high degree of proportionality, and the fact that nobody really understands the “black box” counting that produces the result. Neither of those should really be a problem for the Lords, and if anything suit the character of the chamber.

This is nonsense. STV is not AV in multi-member constituencies. It simply doesn’t work.

STV is an entirely different system that functions identically to AV when reduced to single member constituencies as the equation produces a quota of 50% in order to be elected. However, AV cannot deal with multi-member constituencies as it is incapable of dealing with anything other than a 50% post.

In short, this entire post is based on the fault logic that all preferential voting systems are identical. Which is about as accurate as assuming that every blog is of an identical political leaning.

AV was labelled by the No campaign as being obscure. Conversely, use of STV in the UK is established in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

AV was also branded the system nobody wants. STV however has been campaigned for by the Lib Dems, their predecessors and the Electoral Reform Society for over a hundred years.

AV isn’t proportional. STV is.

Lastly ‘STV’ and ‘AV’ only share the letter ‘V’. ‘AV Plus’ does sound too much like ‘AV’. Yes, that’s a facile argument, but we have a facile political culture.

Jon/1,2: There’s “Asset Voting” which allows candidates with spare votes, and candidates who can’t win, to give those votes to other candidates. (I would use a slight modification restricting who they can transfer to so that it acts more like open list than closed list when it comes to who gets the power to set election order within a party)

Avoids the problem of both overvote and undervote on independents compared with a pure list system, but I can’t see it being accepted in the UK because it’s open to the same “gives the BNP transfer power” argument that was used on AV but with actual justification. Pity – it’s actually a nice, if obscure, compromise solution between Open List and STV.

I would say the problem with STV, actually, is that you can’t have massive proportional constituencies, because of the need to preference 20+ candidates that would arise would just make the ballot papers unwieldy. And you can solve this with “above the line” voting to party-preferred preferences as they do in Australia… but then you’ve basically got Asset Voting with a minor tweak for the people who don’t even trust their first preference candidate, and that tweak makes your counting much harder.

Open List (or Asset) you can easily have 100 candidates – you just need to pick the single best one – which allows much bigger constituencies, perhaps even regional ones. (I think regional is about the right level to do Lords elections at)

Really, though, electing cross-benchers in any great numbers is going to be virtually impossible whatever system you use: a rise in small-party candidates would have to do instead.

Aside: Not only does hardly anyone understand STV counting, but the people who do understand it have substantial disagreements on how to go about it because there are several ways to do it depending on the balance between count efficiency+comprehensibility and vote usage efficiency you want to get.

George W Potter/3: STV is even an older system than AV, by a few decades, so that’s another reason why “STV as an expansion of AV” is backwards.

AMS is not great, and unproportional. It doesn’t work that well in Scotland, and I’d argue against it. Taking No to AV as No to preferential voting is a serious stretch.

7. Ben Aldin

In PR list systems, open lists are fine in principle, but make the ballot paper hellishly complicated. You also re-create the problem of having to think of an electoral system to count the preferences.

I also wonder whether you can end up having an upper chamber which is more representative of the country than the House of Commons.

We shouldn’t “reform” the Lords. We should abolish it.

The only good thing about the Lords right now is that it stands up to the government, at least some of the time, on issues of civil liberties and executive abuses. Why would a democratic Lords be any more likely to stand up for our basic liberties than the democratic Commons does right now?

Yes, we do need checks and balances against the power of the executive via the Commons, but why not make the second chamber us, the people? For every bill that the Commons passes, other than finance bills, why not put it before the British public in a referendum? Does anyone think that the coalition would be trying to abolish the NHS if they had to get approval from the people to do so?

Cost? Well, there would have to be a number of referendums every year, so that would cost a bit (although you would save the money currently funding the Lords). However, it would not cost that much really, since you could have maybe 6 referendum days per year, with several referendums on each day. And anyway, you can’t put a price on democracy.

No doubt someone will argue that people can’t be trusted with this power. That it’s “anarchy”. That people don’t have an informed understanding to vote on various issues.

Well, never mind that all of those arguments were used against the Levellers and the Radicals and the Chartists and the Suffragettes when they called for greater democracy. The people making those arguments would probably be just as wrong this time as they were that time (who ever heard of a situation where giving people as a whole more power and democracy led to arbitrary rule and tyranny?). But here’s the thing – the argument for universal suffrage isn’t based on consequentialist grounds (unless you want to argue that if people weren’t suited for democracy then dictatorship would be ok). It’s based on the simple principle that no person should have authority over another person without that person having a say. Now why not extend this further and say that no new laws over a person unless that person has a say?

My proposal keeps the advantages of representative democracy like the division of labour whereby we employee people whose job it is solely to formulate and scrutinize law and the government. However, it adds in the advantages of direct democracy like making sure that there is no new laws without the people’s agreement.

I broadly agree with #1. “The important thing as I see it for a system in the Lords is that it needs to retain the ability to have cross-benchers. Crossbenchers are really the only reason the Lords as an institution isn’t a complete waste of time”.

Appointment by party leaders, for 15 year terms, one-third to be appointed after each general election (or fewer if elections happen more often), with the proviso that no Party Leader may appoint someone who is a member of, or donor to, their own party, seems to be the least worst option to me. Incentive to keep independents, reduced opportunities for patronage, and politicians only kicked upstairs if they are genuinely respected across the floor of the house.

@3: It would be extremely weird to expand AV into multimember seats the way you propose. The natural way to do it is to make it into STV.
Anyway, that doesn’t matter: the real point is that, given that AV plainly IS the degenerate case of STV, and given that we just lost a referendum on AV, it would be a huge hostage to fortune to try to foist STV onto the upper chamber. Just you wait: if this is what happens, there will be endless press stories about how we are being undemocratically forced to have for the upper chamber a variant of the very system that was recently rejected by the public… It would be the worst possible way to bring about a ‘democratisation’ of the upper chamber, for it would endlessly be called undemocratic.

Cross-benchers could be retained ex officio, as I pointed out over at LibDemVoice.

Surely an open list system of some kind or the Green Party’s preferred version of AMS gives us a better PR option – in both senses of the word ‘PR’ – than STV, for Lords reform…

@6 AMS is only unproportional if there aren’t enough list seats to balance out the constituency ones. And single vote AMS will be more proportional than top-up vote AMS, assuming all the parties with a genuine chance of list seats stand in enough constituencies.

And STV isn’t that proportional unless you have constituencies of about 7-8 seats, which would produce nightmare ballot papers and effectively eliminate any chance of a constituency link (not particularly important in the Lords, but worth mentioning).

As for Rupert’s original point, it’s not that choosing STV for the Lords will necessarily sink reform (though it might), it’s not that STV is the same system as AV (as posters here will know), it’s that the media and the general public (who know little to nothing about the differences between various election systems) will portray or understand it respectively as being more-or-less AV. The “it’s too complicated” argument will be replayed in full, except that this time there will be substance behind the claim. The “it will let in the BNP” will also be replayed, again with actual substance behind the claim.

In short, choosing STV for Lords reform is likely to hinder any attempt to make the case for it to the public in the next few years compared to choosing AMS or Euro-style party lists.

7/Ben Aldin: open lists are fine in principle, but make the ballot paper hellishly complicated.

Are you thinking of something else by “open lists”? You either have a standard FPTP-style ballot paper, but considerably longer to accommodate the extra candidates, and voters mark their favourite with a cross; or to save on trees you allocate each candidate a short code and voters write in the code for their candidate onto a very small ballot paper.

You also re-create the problem of having to think of an electoral system to count the preferences.

Well, there’s the “D’Hondt or Saint-Lague?” question, but it doesn’t make that much difference which you pick.

there will be endless press stories about how we are being undemocratically forced to have for the upper chamber a variant of the very system that was recently rejected by the public

1. The Lords is already undemocratic. Not even the Daily Mail is stupid enough to say a change to an STV-elected Lords is somehow undemocratic compared to what we’ve got.

2. List systems are more undemocratic. They bring parties explicitly into the electoral process rather than just candidates.

3. What you advocating is capitulation. Your only argument against STV just seems to be that “the Press Barons won’t like it”. Funny, I seem to remember there being a word for this – “triangulation”. I hear Tony Blair was a big fan.

So to follow your argument to its logical conclusion Rupert, you should now get “tough on crime”, anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-welfare state, and climate denialist. Those views are all popular with the Press Barons. Maybe could try a rebranding as a “New Green”.

Instead, grow a fucking backbone, tell the press to shove it, and stand up for what’s right, not what’s expedient.

@13 Thanks, Green Christian. You have got the point exactly, and re-put it very well.

@15 Anon: What tripe. I am not talking about selling out Lords reform (Your examples are all of sell-outs); I am talking about doing it in a smart way which is less vulnerable to the kind of harmful propaganda that we saw in the referendum campaign. If Clegg goes ahead with STV as his preferred option then I GUARANTEE you that the Daily Mail will scream headlines saying that we are being foisted a retread of AV by the back door.

The one problem I have with lords reform is that it risks losing the good things about the current system without replacing it with anything better. The positive things about the current house are: The large number of cross benchers, the fact that they usually aren’t beholden to their party machines, continuity of experience, specialist knowledge (ie Robert Winston). All of which makes them more inclined to block stupid and often illiberal laws which haven’t been thought through. An elected lords will definitely lose 2 and 4, and possibly 1. With the result that we may well go from a relatively independent, scrutinising and blocking chamber, to a mere rubber stamp on whatever their party wants.

@8: I’m very wary of referenda, and of any claim that they represent “direct democracy”.

Surely, direct democracy means that the whole populace deliberates and then decides – in other words, we the people do the whole of the job which representative democracy entrusts to politicians. But in a referendum, politicians do the deliberating, frame the question, and then abdicate responsibility for the final decision, while the people have no part in the process up until they get to vote. It’s a mish-mash.

These reservations apply mainly to the current use of referenda, as extraordinary measures taken within a context of representative government. If, as you propose, they were actually the means of government (or at least a branch of it), things might be different. But the issue of deliberation remains a hurdle to be overcome: in a country the size of ours, how can the whole population be directly involved in a debate on any given issue? Any issue that CAN be devolved to a low enough level to enable full local participation should be; but full national participation is not possible, which is why we have a representative system in the first place.

It’s true that, by not holding referenda on election day, we’d avoid the phenomenon of people who don’t really have a view on / any knowledge of the issue at hand voting for irrelevant partisan reasons – to some extent. But if we hold dozens at a time, instead of results being skewed by people who came out to vote in an election, we’d get people who come out to vote in one or two key referenda voting thoughtlessly in the others. (I realise that this is all too often what MPs do anyway; that, too, is something that needs working on.)

By the way, do all remember that there are other systems besides preferential, mixed, party-list, and FPTP. What about cumulative voting? What about SNTV for multi-member constituencies? These should be under discussion too.

@ 8:

“(although you would save the money currently funding the Lords).”

Since Their Lordships aren’t salaried, the HoL is actually rather cheap, certainly more so than the Commons. Any savings from that direction would be minimal.

“Well, never mind that all of those arguments were used against the Levellers and the Radicals and the Chartists and the Suffragettes when they called for greater democracy. The people making those arguments would probably be just as wrong this time as they were that time”

Just because these sorts of arguments were wrong in those instances, it doesn’t follow that they are wrong in this instance.

“(who ever heard of a situation where giving people as a whole more power and democracy led to arbitrary rule and tyranny?)”

Ancient Athens. The French Revolution was an attempt to give people more power and democracy. Democratic Weimar Germany ended up electing a government far more tyrannical than the old system.

“But here’s the thing – the argument for universal suffrage isn’t based on consequentialist grounds”

Why not? Basing your constitution around the sorts of things that work seems like an eminently sensible idea to me. When you start to re-arrange things based around abstract principles, the results are rarely happy (*coughFrenchRevolutioncough*).

“(unless you want to argue that if people weren’t suited for democracy then dictatorship would be ok)”

Or oligarchy, maybe. But if people weren’t suited for democracy, why on earth would you want to set up a democracy?

I am delighted to see that Nick Clegg is proceeding with reform of the House of Lords. It is vital to our being (becoming) a democratic country.

Why is this important? What good is the HoL not doing now that it will be doing if it’s reformed along the lines proposed?

21. dsquared

This makes AV-Plus or STV (which is simply AV in multi-member constituencies)

Rupert, this is tonto. “Simply” AV in multimember constituencies gets rid of the whole problem with AV – that it isn’t a proportional system. Multi member constituencies isn’t a minor geeky technical detail, it’s the most important breakthrough.

One solution would be to have Lords elections on the same day as the Euro election. Then it would make sense to use the same election system for both.

I agree with lots of other posters that STV is a good system (personally I’d use STV+ to make it more proprtional), But wreckers are likely to use STV as an excuse to block it.

23. Richard P

I think Rupert may be right. In the AV debate, people claimed that AV involves (a) some people having more votes than others, (b) an incomprehensible counting system, (c) the top-placed candidate on first preferences not necessarily winning. All the same criticisms can be levelled at AV. True, the first of these criticisms is essentially moronic nonsense, and the third does not happen often, and the notion that it is a problem is absurd because it’s obviously the way things should be. Still, AV and STV have those similarities.

I am not sure what Rupert is referring to by the “classic 1-vote” variant of AMS. Would this be where you only have a constituency vote, but your party list vote is taken to be the party of the constituency candidate you voted for? If so, I prefer the two-vote system used in Scotland, Wales and Germany, where voters have a separate vote for the party list. Surely that gives the voter more choice, as they have the option of preferring their constituency candidate as an individual but not the candidate’s party; further, the tactical considerations which will influence their constituency vote need not influence their list vote (though different tactical considerations do come into play, obviously: e.g. if you think your chosen party will win so many constituency seats that the top-up list vote will be wasted unless used for a different party, or if you think your chosen party list is unlikely to win enough votes to get any representation even under PR, you might not vote for your true preference on the party list).

As for open lists, need the ballot papers really be that complicated? Why not look at how other countries do it? In Sweden they have a separate ballot paper for each party. You can use one of them, of course. You pick the ballot paper you want (which you can bring with you to the polling station, or pick up just outside the entrance) and that paper lists all the party’s candidates, so you can vote for your preferred candidate within the list, which also counts as a vote for the list for the purpose of allocating seats between parties. I am not sure how they ensure secrecy and integrity in this system, perhaps someone else is clearer, but the fact is, it can be done.

Most countries that have open lists seem to use FPTP as the method for selecting a preferred candidate within the party list, though. I find that a bit worrying, as we know how flawed that system is, and surely that is no less true when voting within a party than when voting between parties.

I also find it a concern that there is no facility for a voter to express a second preference list to which their vote will be transferred if their preferred party list fails to meet the threshold – but obviously with their hostility to AV, conservative British commentators will not like that idea.

24. Richard P

Two other things:
– Can we not change the party list system used for Euroelections? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re allowed to change it to anything but STV. (We need to use a PR system under EU rules, and AMS isn’t going to work well with a relatively small number of MEPs to be elected.) Do people really prefer party lists to STV though?
– If it is true that a vote against AV is a vote against STV, logically this has dire consequences for the future of Scottish council elections (there was never a referendum on adopting STV for them, and AV for council byelections) and NI elections (there was a referendum on the Good Friday agreement but I’m not sure if it covered STV and if it covered it for all the kinds of elections NI uses it for).

25. mapman1984

Using AV+ wouls seem a peverse decision, not just because it has ‘AV’ in the title, but because AV+ was created specifically for the Commons – that’s why it is primarily a constituency based system (the proportion of top-up seats is only 15-20%, and the county-based top-up regions are more like marge constituencies anyway). STV has a lot of problems in my view too – you can either have it as a proprtional system, with massive constituencies returning an average of about 7 members (with horrifically complicated ballot papers) or you can have a less proportional, more constituency based system like they have in Ireland, with 3-5 members. Neither seems ideal for the Lords.

Personally I quite like the previous Governments plans outlined here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/20/leaked-house-of-lords-reform-paper

Basically, open list regional PR. You could certainly tinker with it: use a different electoral formula perhaps, find some place for the crossbenchers, consider increasing the House’s power… but it’s a starting point.

@21: It’s not as if I am unaware of the point you make here, @dsquared… But it doesn’t address my argument. Just because STV is PR and AV isn’t won’t stop the Lords, the Express etc fulminating against multimember AV being proposed for the upper house.

@23: Yes, that is what I mean by ‘1-vote ams’.
I think there is quite a strong case for it. Though I also think a regional list system would be fine, provided it were open.

Right now the Lords seems to be doing a great job of blocking the Coalition’s most demented policies (elected police chiefs? This is Britain, not the Wild West) and as such I’m quite happy to leave them as they are.

I think actually the elected Lords reflect public opinion rather better than the Coalition. Because no-one voted for the coalition either, they voted for the Tories or the Lib Dems or Labour, and what we’ve got is a bastard hybrid which no-one wanted.

I mean unelected Lords. Obviously.

I agree Rupert, in light of AV’s defeat, AMS is more winnable than the other systems you mention: it could keep constituency votes exactly as they are, and unlike AV can be sold with a simple, easy to understand message, ie. that it’s fair for the number of seats a party gets to match the number of votes it gets.

The happy thing about all this is that it now appears that Clegg HAS backed away from commitment to STV. He is now simply talking about using some form of PR: THAT is what has been officially announced.
Perhaps he or his advisers have been reading LibCon and LibDemVoice! 🙂

Actually, maybe I have been too hasty… It appears on closer inspection that the draft bill DOES still contain a preference for STV… hmmmmm…
🙁


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Owen Blacker

    I hate to say it, but Rupert Read is prolly right: Could Clegg’s system of choice for Lords Reform kill it?
    http://bit.ly/j9v4Hn

  2. Constitution Unit

    Electoral reform talk turns to how best to elect peers to a reformed lords – would AV derivatives still be appropriate? http://bit.ly/lwdhLU

  3. Alex Smethurst

    @libcon too simplistic to say STV 'is simply AV in multi-member constituencies' http://bit.ly/lwdhLU #lordsreform #yes2stv #yes2pr

  4. Richard Wood

    Could Clegg’s system of choice for Lords Reform kill it? http://t.co/BWYsaK0 via @libcon < Totally agree, AMS the way forward





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