Sunday, 30 August 2015

A senate with proportional representation is needed as the last line of defence

Yet again a long time has passed since my last blog update. I should first take the opportunity to express my sadness at the loss of Charles Kennedy. We ought to remember that at the end of the day politicians are human beings like us and life after the end of a remarkable career isn't always going to be easy to adjust to. Yet Charlie had a life beyond Westminster to look forward to and when it came to arguing for the UK to remain in the EU, he would have been there a formidable debater taking our country, maybe even finding more time to lead the Yes to EU campaign. We'll never know.

There was a time before I properly followed Scottish politics, when UK-wide politics was higher on my radar. That was 2006 and earlier when Charles Kennedy was leading the Liberal Democrats at the height of their popularity and when I would have voted for them in Westminster elections. Under his leadership they represented the voice of progress, the party I really wanted in Government and it was because Charlie broke ranks with his own party to argue against the Iraq War that it seems he won over so many fans. When news broke that he resigned as leader in 2006, coincidentally as I remember on the same day the Observer started to resemble a tabloid, I felt very disappointed. When I would next get to vote for the Lib Dems Kennedy would no longer be in charge. Needless to say though, it was the SNP I voted for at my next opportunity. But I continued to feel that through Charlie's warmth a sense that this was a politician who was a real people's man. During the referendum campaign, I felt sure that Charles' voice was the one that stood out from the scaremongers quietly arguing positively for Scotland to remain part of the UK. But it seemed drowned out though by cacophony of Project Fear.

He was a proud Scot but more specifically he was a proud Highlander. Charles Kennedy will be missed by everyone and Scottish and UK politics is all the poorer for him not being here. My thoughts remain with his family and friends.

On the subject of electoral reform, the Conservative majority despite being the minority of the popular vote makes the case for electoral reform unanswerable. Except from the Tories point-of-view of course. Even Nicola Sturgeon, who benefitted by 95 percent of Scottish MPs being won by only 50 percent of the popular vote for the SNP, remains committed to the case for electoral reform. However, there's another elephant in the room, the House of Lords, and it could be argued that this is what should be sorted first because the second chamber is the difference between legislation being passed and it being rejected.

I have been in favour of a proportional system for the House of Commons through the use of the de Hondt method. But it is hard to see how such a system would work without either increasing the number of seats to accommodate additional list members or increasing the size of the constituencies so fewer constituency members are elected to allow space for the additional members. Of course we could use the PR system used for European elections but that means we could only really have regional MPs and fear with that is that a bigger constituency for members means the fear certain local issues would end being sidelined in parliament for 'more important' regional ones. And importantly people value the element of direct local accountability in a size of constituency where their voice is most likely to be heard in front of the Government in the House of Commons.

Far better in my opinion is to sort out the chamber which acts as the last line of defence against unpopular government policies, the upper house, currently the House of Lords. If you have a fully proportional composition of members in this chamber then ultimately legislation that the majority of people in the country didn't vote for doesn't get passed because that majority is properly represented.

It normally follows that the party with the largest share of the popular vote ends up with the most seats because usually the majority of constituencies each represent the country as a whole at a miniature level - the average constituency if you like. It makes sense democratically that the party with the most seats in the Commons gets the first opportunity to form a government, but it would only be able to form a government if it can get a Queen's Speech past both houses. Then it doesn't matter too much that there's not a proportional representation in the lower house if that's the price for direct local representation. The point with a revising chamber is that it is just that - a place for revising legislation. Yes the government has had more or less its own way in the lower chamber but now it's time to test that against the assumed opinion of the country as a whole. I say 'assumed opinion' because its assumed that the opinion of the party represents the opinion of the people that elect them if they are following through on their manifesto pledges.

If such a second chamber, lets call it a senate, is fully proportional and elected properly at the same interval as in the general election it would be a more respectable component of our legislature. And the members, the senators, would be more acutely aware of their responsibilities and the accountability at which they are held. When they turn up to work they actually have to get some work done and if you have them up for reelection every two years like in America then they really have no time to sit on their butts. The Government would have to regularly make sure that whatever laws they are trying to craft they have to be sure they can command the majority of the both houses.

One thing's for sure. The new intake of Peers announced in the dissolution honours list a few days ago taking the total to well over 800 makes a real mockery of democracy with these people having either stood down at the last election or been voted out by the public. And 826 is too many. Lets bring that number down to a size that can actually all fit onto the seats at the same time (without allowing any spaces for them lie down and doze!)