When the UK was given the opportunity to adopt a proportional representation electoral system in the 2011, it was notable only for the lack of enthusiasm from voters. The alternative vote (AV) referendum, for which the Liberal Democrats sacrificed much in the coalition negotiations, ended with only 13% of the electorate voting in favour with a turnout of 41%.
The party’s mistake was to ask the question at the wrong time. The feeling then was that change was unnecessary. Constitutions only change where the need for it is recognised. But given what has happened since 2011, such a referendum would probably have a very different outcome today.
Since 2011, membership of smaller parties has exploded while the major parties have stagnated (albeit Labour’s membership has been rising since the election). The centre ground has been eroded from the left and the right. More who might have voted for the smaller parties on May 7 may have been put off by first past the post.
Even then the election result represented a strong move away from a three-party system, and demonstrated the inability of our current system to keep up. To recap on what first-past-the-post delivered, UKIP and the Greens got one MP, but UKIP got 12.6% of the vote whereas the Greens got 3.8%. The Lib Dems got 7.9% of the vote but only eight MPs, while the SNP got 4.6% of the vote but 56 MPs. Labour got 30.5% and 232 MPs (39.69% of MPs). The Conservatives with 36.9% of the vote got 331 MPs (50.92% of MPs).
The volume of response since those results suggests that the UK now realises that first-past-the-post is problematic - backing up a pre-election poll that found that a majority favoured voting reform to help the smaller parties. First past the post gives people a vote but prevents them giving power to those who they truly want to represent them. The substantial support for a selection of smaller parties has shown clearly that the UK now wants proportional representation.
Much of this sea change can actually be put down to proportional representation itself. Through the EU elections, which have a PR system, the number of seats allocated to UKIP gave it momentum going into the general election. And it was the Scottish parliament’s PR system that allowed the Scots more than ten years to realise that they were no longer forced to choose between the three parties which dominated Westminster. Long before the SNP’s landslide victory in this election, PR gave Scottish voters the confidence to vote for an SNP majority government in Holyrood.
A proportional Lords
In the election campaign the Conservatives and Labour talked of making constitutional changes such as English Votes for English Laws and replacing the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions. But sudden big changes in the UK constitution are not easily accepted, as we have seen with the likes of giving more power to the EU and the Human Rights Act, which gives the European Court of Human Rights jurisdiction in the UK and which the Tories want to replace.
By the same token, the evidence of a national will to bring in proportional representation is one thing – but it will be more willingly accepted, especially by a Conservative government that shows little appetite for reform, if this change to the British Constitution comes through evolution rather than revolution.
A change which the UK may be constitutionally amenable to would be applying proportional representation to the House of Lords – a move the Conservatives have flirted with before. Continuity with the current constitutional power structure would be maintained by keeping first-past-the-post in the House of Commons. This would retain the benefits and long-established constitutional position of having MPs tied to particular constituencies.
In the Lords, the majority of the 780 members of the House of Lords are appointed by the main political parties. A small number of non-party peers are nominated by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission, while 26 Bishops and 87 hereditary peers make up the remainder.
This lacks democratic legitimacy and limits its ability to hold the Commons to account. Linked to this are restrictions on the Lords such as the constitutional rule known as the Salisbury Convention, under which it does not oppose a statutory bill which was a manifesto promise; and the Parliament Act, which says that the Lords’ refusal to pass any bill can ultimately be overruled by the Commons.
Baby and bath water
The House of Lords has advantages, however. As its members do not fear for their seats, they can take the long view and moderate the populist political will of the Commons. Their expertise enables them to give bills scrutiny as experts rather than solely as politicians.
We could avoid throwing away all that by adopting the proportional-representation party list system to elect a new upper house. Under this system, each party draws up a ranked list of candidates, from which a number are elected based on the parties’ shares of a national vote.
To maintain a group of independent representatives, a parliamentary committee could put together a list of such candidates along the lines of what happens already. Voters would be given an independent “none of the above” option on their ballot papers, and the proportion of votes for this option would determine the number of representatives who came from the independents list. This would ensure that impartial expertise would be kept in the house.
You could also encourage a long view among the electorate and their representatives by having members elected for a term longer than five years. And having given the house this shot of democratic legitimacy, restrictions like Salisbury and the relevant provisions in the Parliament Act could be removed.
Why should the new Conservative government listen to this? The party said in its manifesto that “while we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in the next parliament”.
As I have argued, the political will for more proportional allocation of power now exists. By focusing on the House of Lords, it offers a more evolutionary route that maintains the constitutional and electoral values that we already hold to be important. At the same time, the Conservatives do not have a majority in the Lords. Such a reform might strengthen their position across parliament – or give the UK the freedom to vote differently.