Friday, 16 September 2016

Revving and braking

The House of Lords is undemocratic and way too big, as I mentioned yesterday. It could be slimmed down and reformed into an elected body but then, commentators warn, there could be a power struggle with the other elected house and political paralysis.* So why not just get rid of the upper chamber completely? One chamber to rule them all - a simple solution? Simple but wrong, according to Samuel Whitehouse:
When the Coalition Government briefly debated House of Lords reform, Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall spoke of abolishing the Lords, giving way to a unicameral system. Typical politician, forever craving more power. Do we really want our elected representatives to go unchecked in carrying out their duties? I think not. An upper chamber is therefore paramount. An upper chamber ensures additional scrutiny of government legislation, it ensures a vital second opinion and often proceeds with more caution than a government controlled lower chamber, eager on implementing its legislative programme
Fair point, but I'm still not wholly convinced that a second chamber is vital.

Why does Britain need a second chamber to keep the other one in check? As far as I can see, it's because we have a first past the post electoral system, which tends to produce strong governments (or elective dictatorships, depending on your point of view).

If we had a more proportional voting system which didn't exaggerate the support for, and power of, the winning party, then the problem of the over-mighty executive would go away. There's not much difference, as far as I can see, between a relatively weak government and a relatively strong government that's deliberately weakened by the actions of a revising chamber. But the relatively weak government option seems preferable in two ways:

  1. Because, if it emerged from a proportional system, it would more accurately reflect who/what people actually voted for.
  2. Because it's the simplest way of giving the government an appropriate amount of power. Trying to hold back a turbocharged government, as we do now, is like simultaneously stamping on the accelerator and the brake pedal because you want to drive slowly, rather than just selecting a low gear, like any sensible person.

I'm sure that there must be some flaws in the attractively simple notion of PR with one chamber (beyond the obvious difficulty of getting the turkeys who benefit from our current bodge-up to vote for Christmas), but they'd have to be pretty big ones to make it worse than what we've got already.

*I suspect that this danger is exaggerated by supporters and beneficiaries of the status quo, for whom it's an excellent excuse for changing nothing.