May 082010

Whenever constitutional reform is mooted here in the UK, the drive seems to be something along the lines of: the executive has too much power, MPs have too little, and oh yeah, unelected Lords have no place in a democratic nation. (Let’s pretend in this discussion, for the sake of simplicity, that the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t made Parliament redundant.)

What kind of reforms would be required, then, to address these perceived problems?

The House of Lords is easy: sweep out all of the old peers and bishops and allow people to stand for election. Presumably the old peers and bishops would be permitted to stand if they wanted to; certainly they would have to have the franchise returned to them.

It’s not as easy as that, though, is it? First of all, how many members of an elected Lords should there be? Will it be fixed, or determined by population the way Commons constituencies are? Should it even be called the ‘Lords’ any more? What will be the length of term – same as the Commons, or staggered, or fixed terms? What will its constitutional functions be?

At the moment, its high-court responsibilities having been snaffled away, the Lords exists primarily to scrutinise Commons legislation. Because the lords themselves are supposed to be non-partisan, they are meant to be able to judge legislation on its merits, rather than according to who drafted it and who’s whipping them into place. In reality, however, the Lords rarely scuppers Commons legislation. A part of the reason for this is probably because they are unelected, and Commons legislation is supposed to represent the will of the people. Another part is probably because, though supposedly non-partisan, a great many of the lords themselves are ex-party higher-ups. Does anyone really think Kinnock, Mandelson, and Martin, for example, have been busily scrutinising Commons legislation on its merits?

So we end up with a conundrum. The lords are granted the power to scrutinise legislation, but only because they are meant to be non-partisan. But non-partisan also means unelected, so they can’t scrutinise too closely or they’ll be usurping the power of the people as represented by the Commons. But if we start electing them, they’ll no longer be non-partisan, and there will no longer by any point in their scrutiny because it won’t even have the current veneer of disinterest.

Okay, that’s a little too tough for a Saturday afternoon. Let’s look at MPs and the executive, because they go hand in hand. Absent the European aspect, the reason MPs have so little power is because the executive has so much. The executive controls the parliamentary calendar of bills, it introduces bills, it whips its party’s MPs to vote on those bills. Ministers have extraordinary powers in their departments to introduce measures that don’t have to go before the Commons at all. This is why the executive is called the Government, and the Commons is just a bunch of fat-chewers.

The current hung parliament really throws this into stark relief. Why is there such consternation? Because Britain, at this precise moment, has no government. Or rather, no Government. The people have had their say, and there is certainly a legislature. But the legislature can’t act, because no executive exists to, well, execute any action. The executive is, by constitutional tradition, the leaders of whichever party holds a majority of the seats in the Commons. No majority means no executive means no Government means that, even though MPs have been duly elected all over the country, they are sat on their asses with nothing to do at the moment. They are, in a word, powerless.

Now, that’s weird, isn’t it? Normally MPs have no power because the executive is over-bearing. But then we discover that they also have no power when there is no executive at all. So what is the point of MPs, exactly?

Quite clearly, then, we see that the only purpose of MPs is to provide a count by which it is determined which party’s leaders will rule the country. The electorate are not choosing a person to represent their interests in the legislature; they are choosing a counter for the party’s leaders to whom they wish to give power. After an election, the party leaders tally up their counters, and whoever has more than half gets to be dictator for 4-5 years, as long as he maintains his number of counters. He gets to choose the rest of the executive, and the executive rules the nation.

We can see now how pathetically laughable are all of the ‘reforms’ that have been mooted to give some of the executive’s power back to the Commons. Committees? HA. Relaxing the whips? Slightly more muted, but still ha.

The only thing that will transfer power from the executive to MPs is to change the way the executive is chosen. And the obvious solution is for the people to elect the executive separately. We can even be generous and just elect the Prime Minister separately. Then parliament can approve, by vote, his or her Cabinet choices.

Except – wait! Remember that newly-elected House of Lords with little to do because their partisanship has destroyed their previous role? Hey, why don’t we let them ratify the Cabinet? Let’s let them ratify the executive’s choices of important judges, too, just for funsies. Keep them busy with something, since we’ll be paying them to sit there. And maybe they can still have their scrutiny of legislation, because the balance of parties in the Lords may be quite different from that in the Commons.

We can also open up the Commons a little bit too, now. The parties can still have their whips, of course – otherwise what’s the point of parties? And the executive can even decide the calendar. But instead of introducing legislation, the executive will have to get its MPs to do that – because of course the Prime Minister et all won’t be members of the legislature any more. So now the legislature will actually be able to control legislation. As it should be.

And so at the end of all of this, we get a less dictatorial executive, a legislature that is actually in charge of legislation, and a democratically elected House of Lords (or House of Whatever) that can act as a legitimate check on the power of the Commons. We’ve spread all of the power around, you see, and because every elected representative will have a greater say in what the government does, so will the people who elected him (or her). The democratic deficit is reduced, the parties become less tyrannical –

– and there are no more hung parliaments.

What’s not to like? Come on, you constitutional reformers out there: propose something like this, and maybe we can stop nominating you for Biggest Bullshitters of the Millenium award.

  10 Responses to “How to solve the problem of a hung parliament”

  1. My suggestion for the upper house would be to have the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, the Scottish Parliament and a newly-elected English Parliament sit together as a Grand Senate to fulfil the functions you outline.

    They could continue to sit separately as “Petty Senates” on devolved issues. The only new elections would therefore be for the English Parliament/Petty Senate (which should have the same powers for England as the “wee pretendy” one in Edinburgh has for Scotland). We could also enact a constitution and entrench it on terms that majorities in all four parts of the Senate must endorse any change.

    This would be more democratic without creating more layers. It should cost no more than the present arrangements; perhaps even less. The budget from nationally-raised taxes should be allocated on a per capita basis for devolved functions to the Petty Senates, and the balance administered by a much reduced executive answerable to a much smaller House of Commons. You wouldn’t need 650 MPs to deal with what little work was left after such a completion of devolution (and the continuing delegation of powers to Brussels for so long as we remain members of the EU).

    The Petty Senates should all be given local tax-raising powers to fund any more expensive approaches they may choose to apply locally (or to give rebates from their share of national taxes if they decided to scale down their functions). The Welsh and Scots’ endless appetite for government money would diminish rapidly if their superior services were funded from local taxes. And the English would either pay less (or choose to improve their services). Their call, for the first time since the Acts of Union.

    Of course the most important reform of all would be to set up a delegated mechanism to review electoral boundaries every year, according to the number of taxpayers in each constituency, so that all were more or less equal. And to remove the vote from non-taxpayers (including public servants, whose “tax payments” are meaningless churn of money provided by private sector taxpayers).

  2. Reform the House of Lords by making it elected. Two peers from each county; one of each sex. They serve for 4 years, no more than 3 consecutive terms. They cannot be members of the government. They are paid and have a substantial budget to pay for expert help etc. The reformed HoL inherits the powers of the present one.

  3. I’ve blogged reform ideas at some length, mainly along the lines of what they could nick from Down Under and what they should avoid like the plague, and what lots of people seem to want and why I think it won’t deliver what they hope (short version: AV or similar elected Commons, replace the Lords with a PR elected Senate, bring in referenda, recalls and open primaries (nicked from Hannan’s and Carswell’s The Plan) and don’t under any circumstances bring in compulsory voting). But I hadn’t thought of electing the executive separately from the legislature. Should be obvious even to those of us who aren’t American…. ‘scuse me one moment.


    Okay, another thing to like about the idea is that it makes all constituencies properly represented again (well, kind of). How well have the people of Kirkcaldy and Deadcowbreath been represented in Westminster? Their MP has been, to put it very kindly, a very busy man. Can anyone manage to run the country or even a government department and at the same time represent constituents with the same level of care and attention possible for an MP with nothing else on their plate or maybe just a couple of committees? Kal-El is not eligible as far as I know so the answer is almost certainly a resounding no.

    I like the idea. I like it a lot.

  4. Because such a system works so well in the US… 😉

  5. By the way Bella, why is a hung parliament a problem?

  6. It’s your title – not mine.

    • Oh right, yes. Because the public finances are in dire straits but the lack of an executive means nothing can be done to start sorting them out.

  7. I start from the position that there is no situation a government cannot make worse. (Who said that?). So if government is paralysed things might be better. Anyway, the real government (civil service etc) is getting on with things as usual.

    I also think that what is wrong with this country is that what we have got doesn’t seem to work too well. So, no new laws, just make it work!

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