Elected Upper House? Perish the Thought!

A strange thing is happening to a strange pre-democracy relic in this country. The House of Lords is about to vote on whether it should be abolished.

For those of you who don't understand, the House of Lords is the upper house in the British Parliament. They have the power to review and reject laws. In the past, the Lords was filled with aristocratic toffs whose great-grandfathers had passed the title down the line. These Hereditary Peers (not your or my peers, mind) are supposedly being gradually phased out. The rest of the Lords is made up by people appointed by whoever happens to be in government and can hold the position until they die.

This system ensures that no matter what kind of seachange occurs in British politics at the ballot box, the incumbent government can continue to exert significant influence on law for decades to come. At the moment many of the peers are either converted hereditary (conservative, privileged toffs) or appointees from the Tory years, so in effect you get a Tory house.

The hilarious thing about this is that, if it comes down to it, the Lords can actually be completely bypassed. If the Lords reject a bill twice, the Government can slam it straight through to the Queen (don't get me started on that particular hereditary position) to be signed into law. So in fact the Lords is a rather silly, powerless chamber of toffs to have their conservative say. These are the kind of people who consistently reject things like same-sex marriage rights, single and same-sex adoption and the like. Nice bunch with views that would have been considered regressive in the 17th century.

"Reform" (also known as "status quo")

So anyway, they're talking about "reform" for the Lords. Blair is hell-bent on keeping the appointed upper house, with a few tweaks. He wants to be able to appoint them by committee, allowing for more representation from the two major parties, entrenching the current system with a few extra Labour people.

A few other propositions have been raised, mostly fiddling around the edges rather than considering the radical "democracy" option. So we've had the ridiculous idea of 80% appointed, 20%elected option. Like the 20% election will give anyone any say in anything.

A Modest Suggestion

Now I'm not about to describe Australia as a paragon of democratic choice, but I suggest that the pommies have a look at our Federal system. In it, we have an electorate system similar to the UK for our lower house, albeit with the much more sensible preferential voting. In the upper house we have a state-based proportional system, which means that if 20% of the population in a particular state votes for a particular candidate, they get 20% of the seats allocated for that state.

The beauty of this marriage of electorate and proportional voting systems is it creates a house of review. People can vote for the candidate of their choice, who generally comes from one of the major parties, in the lower house. In the upper house, they can vote for a minor party to provide a bit of balance. In this way a disaffected Labour voter might be able to balance the worst excesses of Blairism with an upper house Lib Dem vote.

The way this works in Australia is through the emergence of a few minor parties which do well in the upper house. The Democrats have as their semi-official slogan, "Keeping the bastards honest", although there has recently been some questioning of this with people asking who will keep the Democrat bastards honest after they supported an unpopular government tax bill.

The Greens are fast becoming a major force in Australia due mainly to the electoral leg-up that the proportional system provides, giving the parliamentary visibility of actually winning seats.

So, British voters, I suggest you get your butt in gear and demand that your MP look at the Australian system and vote in favour of a fully democratic parliament. You might also want to check out Charter 88's campaign.