The coalition should look at reform of local government before the Lords

Since the AV referendum was so roundly defeated, to the disappointment of many Liberal Democrats, there has been a bit of talk about what will be next on the constitutional reforming agenda of the coalition government. Most sources seem to agree that reform of the House of Lords, which was mentioned in the coalition agreement, might be offered to the Lib Dems as a way of compensating for their AV defeat.

Lords reform is an important topic. An upper house composed of an assortment of unelected “friends of the establishment,” nobility and even bishops of the Church of England is hardly a sound endorsement of a modern, thriving democracy. It has long been recognised (and was even voted upon by a majority of MPs in the last Parliament) that the upper chamber should be mostly or wholly elected. A new upper house – a Senate, perhaps – elected by proportional representation seems to be the most likely option.

Most likely, that is, if there is any change at all. Since Labour came to office in 1997, partly on a platform of constitutional reform, meaningful change to the upper chamber has come slowly. The abolition of hereditary peers was watered down, with 92 of them allowed to keep their seats. The establishment of the Supreme Court, replacing the Lords as the highest court in the UK, is the only substantial reform to come in thirteen years of Labour government.

Not all of this was for want of trying – on two separate occasions, the Lords rejected attempts to establish an elected upper chamber, voting instead in favour of a fully appointed house – despite the Commons having expressed a preference for a mostly or fully elected house. There is no reason to suggest that Lords reform would be any easier for the Coalition government – especially as the Lords has had no reservations about making trouble for the government before, with the wrangling over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act last year, and last night’s rejection of government plans for elected police commissioners.

In short, the obstinacy of the Lords makes reforming the chamber no easy task. It would probably require a government with a massive majority and a mandate for Lords reform (which the Coalition arguably does not have), to make it both legally and politically difficult for the Lords to block reform of their own house.

Instead, why don’t the Coalition, the Liberal Democrat part of it in particular, look at reforming local government? Since the Lib Dems failed to achieve electoral reform for general elections, perhaps they should look at changing the way we elect our councillors instead. Scotland and Northern Ireland both already use the Single Transferable Vote for local government elections – there is no reason why this shouldn’t apply in England as well.

There are a number of advantages to STV. It is more proportional than the present First-Past-The-Post system, which would produce a greater diversity of represented parties. Too many councils up and down the country are essentially single- or dual-party fiefdoms, with significant numbers of electors having no representation at all. STV would ensure that practically everyone’s preferences counted towards the election of some of their representatives, giving virtually every voter a stake in their local council.

There is some concern that the larger constituencies mandated under STV, and the very existence of multi-member wards, would weaken the link between representatives and their voters. But multi-member wards already exist under the present system of local government. And how is a Labour voter in Surrey, for instance, or a Tory supporter in Barking and Dagenham, any better represented by their local councillors now, than they would be under STV?

Another common argument against STV is the possibility of extremist parties being elected. But First-Past-The-Post hasn’t stopped the BNP from gaining council seats – and what keeps extremists out of power, ultimately (as the BNP have discovered in recent rounds of local elections) is that they don’t make very good councillors, and are quickly voted out of office.

Furthermore, STV is a popular system in use in many places worldwide, including – as noted – Scotland and Northern Ireland. The jibes, directed at AV, about being a “foreign” system in use virtually nowhere would not apply here. It would be more deliverable than Lords reform and would provide real, measurable, democratic change at a level close to people’s lives. If the Liberal Democrats are concerned about the impact they’re perceived to be having on government, pushing for STV for local elections wouldn’t be a bad way to prove a lot of people wrong.

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