Yesterday, Ed Miliband promised to replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate if Labour wins office next May. At first blush, this seems like a dog-bites-man story. After all, Labour argued for a fully elected second chamber in their 2010 manifesto. However, Miliband now belives that senators should represent Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the English regions instead of localized constituencies.
This could end up being a lot more radical than it sounds. Historically, most proposals for Lords reform have been predicated on the idea that the upper house should continue to be a revising chamber that complements, but does not challenge, the House of Commons. At the same time, however, all three main parties claim that the new upper house should also be ‘democratic.’ This gives rise to a seemingly intractable problem: how do you create an upper house that is both democratic and ultimately subservient to the Commons?
So far, Miliband hasn’t said much about the relationship between his proposed Senate and the Commons, though unnamed Labour officials told the Guardian that the Senate’s regional and national representation “would avoid duplicating the constituency link of MPs and mark a clearly defined role.” To be honest, this sounds like a bunch of waffle. The idea that senators representing nations or regions will be less likely to challenge the Commons seems naive, to say the least. On the contrary, I suspect they will be more likely to oppose the lower house if nationalism is added to the mix. I recently discussed how attitudes toward the European Union differ sharply on either side of the Tweed. Would Scottish senators stand idly by if a Conservative Government tried to pass legislation to take Britain out of the EU? Or would they fight it tooth and nail on the grounds that they were representing the wishes of the Scottish people?
One way around this would be to impose statutory limitations on the Senate’s power, but that has the potential to be highly problematic. What kind of a message will it send to the nations and the regions if the body that’s supposed to represent them in Parliament is clearly subordinate to the House of Commons? Of course, the SNP and their ilk would love it since it would support their argument that the Westminster elites aren’t interested in ceding meaningful power.
On the other hand, if the Senate were on a more or less equal footing with the Commons, it would only be a matter of time before the UK experienced US-style gridlock. That’s not an insoluble problem–section 57 of the Australian Constitution provides an example of how legislative stalemates can be broken–but it would change Britain’s political culture.
As it stands now, Miliband’s ‘Senate of Nations’ idea isn’t quite ready for primetime. Hopefully, he’ll follow through with his promise to appoint a constitutional convention shortly after taking office, and it will be allowed to weigh the matter carefully before the Government brings in legislation.