Tag Archive | "house of lords"

Second chamber reform: total recall? (16 July 2008)

Tags: , , , ,

Second chamber reform: total recall? (16 July 2008)

Posted on 16 July 2008 by admin

Like Thomas Strathclyde, I am dismayed by the proposed Lords’ reforms, but it’s the issue of recall that is truly indefensible

There are many disappointing aspects to yesterday’s government white paper on the reform of the House of Lords, as well as some useful proposals. On this, at least, I am in agreement with Lord Strathclyde, although we identify different disappointments. He valiantly defends the indefensible proposition that a new second chamber would, by virtue of being elected by a system of first past the post, be dominated by the hand-picked candidates of the two largest political parties, almost regardless of how low their vote may fall, and tend to have a government majority. This would make for a poor revising, scrutinising chamber. Postponing any action until after the general election is also disappointing, not least because it minimises the chance of anything actually happening for another few decades, as is normal in the world of Lords’ reform. But the most surprising let-down in the small print of the white paper is the suggestion that members of the new Senate (or whatever it ends up being designated) might be subject to recall votes.

Recall is the procedure whereby an elected official can be subject to a special election, triggered by a petition signed by a proportion of the electorate demanding one. If the majority (or some specified proportion of the voters or the electorate) decide to give the incumbent the boot, then out he or she goes. Recall was originally part of the progressive government reform package in United States, in the early decades of the 20th century, along with primary elections and the direct election of senators. But in effect, recall is thoroughly reactionary rather than progressive. It gives well-organised and powerful interest groups the ability to knock out public figures who oppose their agenda, as shown by the most famous recall in recent years, the overthrow of governor Gray Davis of California in 2003.

Recall has other weird properties. It is perfectly possible, particularly if the bizarre suggestion of introducing first past the post becomes reality, for the replacement candidate to have fewer votes than the recalled incumbent.

Recall of members of the UK Senate would, according to the white paper, be only for serious dereliction of duty, corruption or misconduct, and perhaps only after five years in office. Recall is in the white paper for an understandable reason – that the members of the Senate would have long terms of office, of around 12 years, and that in extreme cases there should be some sanction to get rid of members who are not doing their duty. But there is a terrible dilemma. Too broad a definition of the grounds for recall will lead to politically motivated recalls. Too narrow, and it will either not be used or end up being an excuse for the Senate not to take action itself against errant members.

The white paper tentatively proposes a tighter set of rules about standards of conduct in the Senate than the current Lords’ rules, and an attendance requirement. Instead of recall, the new chamber should have a really rigorous set of rules, enforced by proper independent scrutiny bodies. It should also – as should the Commons – be subject to the criminal laws of fraud and corruption. Where serious cases arise, the legal process – with its standards of proof and definition of terms – is a more appropriate way of coping than a heated and potentially highly politicised recall vote. For lesser evils, recall seems excessive – although it should be made as hard as possible for the chamber to avoid effective sanctions against those who commit them.

Even if recall were hardly used in the Senate, and its inclusion motivated by concern about long terms of office, its enshrinement in British constitutional law would be a dangerous precedent. Recall is not a scalpel that cuts out only the moribund and corrupt from the body politic, it is a very blunt instrument. Even more than the referendum, it is vulnerable to exploitation by demagogues, anti-politics populism and the malice of bitter defeated candidates and special interests who are losing out in the policy process. Recall is purely negative – it is about accumulating discontents, not putting forward a positive agenda. There is too much of that already in political life.


Comments Off on Second chamber reform: total recall? (16 July 2008)

The Senate of Brobdingnag (6 Dec 2005)

Tags: , , ,

The Senate of Brobdingnag (6 Dec 2005)

Posted on 06 December 2005 by admin

The United States Senate is one of the most bizarre and unrepresentative legislative bodies in the democratic world – and I say this advisedly, coming from a country where a seat can be filled by an election among four people with hereditary titles who support a particular party.

Each of the 50 states of the US elects two Senators. The nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, cannot, probably because the idea of black people voting hasn’t caught on sufficiently among other legislators. Representation is unrelated to population, so that Wyoming has two Senators for its population of just under 500,000, and California has two Senators for its population of just under 34 million. The 15 per cent of the American people who live in the smallest states can command a Senate majority.

Senate malapportionment is a time bomb under American democracy.

The reasons that the Senate is such a problem are twofold. One is that it is an exceptionally powerful second chamber. The US Senate has effectively an equal role in the legislature to the House, and in some crucial areas it is actually more important. This makes it distinct from other malapportioned upper chambers in other parliaments (such as Australia and Germany), whose decisions can usually be overridden by the lower house eventually, as with our own dear House of Lords. The Senate can completely block a President’s nominations to the Supreme Court (and other courts), the Cabinet and other executive positions, and veto treaties. It can cut off government funds.

The second is that the bias in favour of small states has systematic consequences. The bulk of the ethnic minority population lives in larger states – California, Texas and Florida notably among them. It is not accidental that the number of black Senators in US history can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The small states – Wyoming, the two Dakotas, Montana, Vermont etc – are among the least ethnically diverse places in the US. They also lack urban areas, and tend towards social conservatism, distorting the entire agenda of US public policy and even judicial philosophy.

This quota system for white rural dwellers has delivered the Senate to the Republicans. The Democrats won the popular vote in Senate elections in 2000 (by 0.6%) and 2004 (by 4.8%) but the Republicans won in 2002 (by 4.1%). Cumulated, this is a 48.4% to 46.8% Democratic advantage. But instead of a thin Democratic lead the Republicans have a comfortable majority with 55 out of 100 seats. The Democrats are only viable as a Senate party because they have a number of popular individuals who can win election even in very conservative states, such as Senator Nelson of Nebraska or Dorgan of North Dakota. Republican strategy has been to make Senate contests ideological rather than personal in these states, and succeeded in knocking out the Democrats’ leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota in 2004.

It is going to get worse. Population projections show the majority of growth taking place in the large states, so that by 2050, according to Steven Hill of Fairvote in Fixing Elections, as few as 5 per cent of the American population may have majority power in the Senate. It should be a matter of some shame that, as Matthew Shugart comments, Robert Mugabe took a leaf out of the American book in devising his gerrymandered Senate.

It is quite possible that future Democratic Presidents would be able to govern only by the consent of an entrenched conservative Republican Senate, even if they had majority support from the electorate.

Senate reform is an even more daunting prospect than it is for the House. A constitutional amendment requires the support of two thirds of the Senate and three quarters of state legislatures, so the small states can veto changes that reduce their excessive power. Equal representation by state is written into the Constitution. One reform that would make the problem a little less sharp would be to elect both Senators from each state at the same time using 2-member STV. But this would probably still result in a situation where the two possible options for control would be a conservative Republican majority or a Democratic majority that would have to look very carefully after the interests of its incumbents in conservative states. It’s a potentially terrifying mess. Much of it results from an undue emphasis in the US Constitution on protecting minorities from majoritarian tyranny (Senate malapportionment, supermajority requirements for Constitutional amendment), that has now opened the way to the tyranny of a favoured minority.


Comments Off on The Senate of Brobdingnag (6 Dec 2005)