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Philip Norton: Neither a new electoral system for the Commons, nor an elected Lords, will fix politics

Screen shot 2010-09-20 at 08.04.33 ConservativeHome has teamed up with LeftFootForward and LibDemVoice to produce a magazine called 'Litmus' that is being distributed at all of the party conferences. The magazine examines six hot topics including climate change, electoral reform and immigration. Please visit the website here. The Conservative contributors to the magazine are Therese Coffey MP, Damian Green MP, Andrew Lilico, Tim Montgomerie, Lord Norton and Stephan Shakespeare.

As a taster we today publish Lord Norton's contribution. Philip, a Conservative peer, is also Professor of Government at the University of Hull.

The calls for a change to the electoral system and election of the second chamber derive from a false premise – that our political system ‘is broken’.  It isn’t.  There is a case for change to parts of the system, but the fundamentals are sound, including the method of electing MPs and the form of the second chamber.  Indeed the two are linked in enabling the UK to have a political system in which government is far more accountable than in many if not most comparable countries.

At the heart of any system of representative democracy is accountability – those elected by the people being answerable to the people for their actions.  Under our system, there is usually one body – the party in government – that is responsible for public policy.  Electors know precisely who is responsible for what happens in government and can turn that body out at the next election.  Election day, as the philosopher Sir Karl Popper memorably put it, is ‘judgement day’.  This accountability is maintained through the first-past-the-post electoral system and also through having one elected chamber.  The House of Lords carries out valuable functions that the House of Commons does not always have the time, the political will or the resources to fulfil, but does not challenge the electoral supremacy of MPs.  The country thus maintains a direct accountability of government while deriving the benefits of a second chamber.  That combination is distinctive and beneficial.

Getting rid of election by first-past-the-post and replacing it with the Alternative Vote (AV) or one of the systems of proportional representation on offer would certainly change things, but not for the better.  There is little to commend the Alternative Vote, which could be why it is rarely used elsewhere in parliamentary elections (only Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea employ it).  The first-past-the-post system in contrast is widely used.   The claim is that AV produces an MP who has the support of 50% or more of the electors.  Except it doesn’t.  It effectively engineers a majority by giving the same weight to an elector’s second and third preferences as to the first preference.  AV has the potential to produce far more distorted results than under the present system (it is estimated that the Conservative Party would have lost even more seats than it did in 1997 had AV been employed) as well as the potential to create more hung Parliaments than under first-past-the-post.  There is also little appetite for change.  In the 2008 Audit of Political Engagement, most of those questioned were satisfied or were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with how votes cast in a general election were translated into seats in the House of Commons.  The net satisfaction rate was +15.  There is no sound case or overwhelming public demand for change.

Nor is there a sound case or overwhelming demand for replacing the existing House of Lords with a body of elected politicians that would simply replicate the House of Commons.  The House of Lords is notable for being a body of experience and expertise. More than 20 per cent of its members are not aligned to any of the political parties.  It adds value to the political process by engaging in detailed examination of legislation and the actions of government. It makes a marked difference to the quality of law in the UK in a way that an elected chamber would not.  One poll found that electors give greater weight, for example, to the detailed examination of Bills, and to the integrity of the appointments process, than to election. Election would challenge the basic accountability of the present system, creating the potential for clashes between the two chambers and for outcomes that favour not electors but parties and interest groups.  Wholly elected second chambers are not the norm and do not necessarily work well.  Having an elected second chamber is not self-evidently the ‘democratic’ option and once one realises that the sound-bite claims for an elected second chamber fall away.

Trust in the political system has not collapsed.  It is trust in politicians that has reached a new low.  Electing the same politicians by different means, be it to the first or the second chamber, is not going to restore trust.  The real problem is behaviour, not structures.


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