In a move which, with any political nous, ought to have been taken much earlier by the sitting government of the United Kingdom in Westminster, the Labour party has done both the politically smart thing and the right thing in pushing genuine constitutional reform of the United Kingdom to the top of the agenda.
The party does not advance any new picture of the overall constitutional shape and direction a reformed union might take on.
It identifies the obvious hotch-potch of the House of Lords and indicates that its manifesto for the coming 2015 General election may contain a pledge to abolish the Lords and create a Senate.
This is a move very much to be welcomed – but there are serious caveats.
The party looks as if it may propose to allocate the positions in such a body in a way that distils and enhances the power of the few, leaving the people even further from access to shaping their country’s constitution. And it may propose powers so limited that such a Senate might be a toothless talking shop. We cannot afford to pay for cosmetic politics.
The foundation for the proposal is a variation on the ideas expressed by former Chancellor and Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in his uncomfortably titled book, My Scotland, Our Britain.
The advantages of a Senate are that it can be set up reliably to represent regions, cultures and key specific interests where the traditional lower house constituencies – with first-past-the-post elections from a slate of largely party-funded candidates, often propelled in from another planet by central office – can not.
Senates – as with America’s – can achieve a different kind of balance from that of a proposing house by having every ‘constituency’ equally represented, regardless of size. This helps to make sure that all voices and interests are heard and carry equally, where representation weighted to respective size can obliterate them.
Full election cannot be negotiable
Reports suggest that Labour’s developing proposal may differ from Gordon Brown’s in that, where he saw a Senate as being fully elected, they are apparently thinking of an indirectly elected one – by MPs, MSPs, MEPs, AMs [Assembly Members – Wales], MLIs [Member of the Legislative Assembly – N. Ireland] etc.
This means that senators would be elected by those already elected to the various parliaments and assemblies of the UK.
Any attempt to fly this one should be flatly resisted.
People who vote according to their party affiliations – which we believe to be unhelpfully retrogressive today – have no choice of representative. They take what the party [central office and some local activists] gives them and they vote to elect them regardless.
If representatives so elected are themselves made the constituency to elect the members of a Senate, they will replicate tribal positioning where it absolutely cannot be allowed in. And their additional power will effectively disenfranchise the people.
The distillation of power that such an indirectly elected Senate would create is democratically unthinkable. This would be a very serious infringement of democracy. That it should even be entertained is a worry.
A senate must be fully elected by universal franchise and it must be free – on pain of serious penalty – of the formal or informal operation of party politics.
We have to have one place where it is the calibre of the representatives and the issues in question that matter; and where we see the best abilities present to shake out those issues, without obligation, fear or favour.
To underscore the role of the Senate, senators should not be appointable to government. Senators could not credibly be seen to sit in judgement on what they had been party to proposing.
A tokenist Senate or one with the power to apply a serious check?
Another worry in the current Labour thinking is that they seem to be seeing the proposal of abolishing the Lords in favour of a Senate as building bridges to the Liberal Democrats, with an eye to a possible need for coalition partners after the 2015 General Election.
This is another example of the disease of party politics – where an unprecedented and badly needed constitutional change in the UK could be infected with the old diseases from the outset, sold out to party political gain.
To this very end, Labour appear to be considering a proposal for a Senate emanating earlier from former Liberal Democrat leader, David Steel.
It was David Steel who, as the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, simply adopted the Westminster binary adversarial system with all the silly ‘boy’s club’ trimmings like Prime/First Minister’s Questions. In Holyrood and Westminster these sessions are no more than orchestrated ritual contests, bawlfests to feed the media and temporarily enliven the flotsam on the back benches. [How many saw that amazing nodding dog cartoon of a woman MSP seated behind Alex Salmond in the FMQ’s where he insisted that Campbell Gunn should not be red-carded for his covert foul on the mother of a disabled child who was impertinent enough to support the union? And this is our Scottish Parliament at work in its most public moments.]
Steel sold the pass on a real opportunity for Scotland to do things differently; but he never was a creature possessed of the capacity for original thought.
Steel’s – Lord Steel’s – Senate would be able to do no more than ask the lower house to reconsider any legislation about which it had serious concerns. This, like his legacy to Holyrood, is just taken from the way the existing House of Lords works.
There is no veto. The upper house – supposedly the unfettered philosophical power house – could not, as the Lords today cannot, prevent flawed, ill thought or even damaging laws proposed by the legislative chamber. It can only delay them.
The Senate is the scrutinising and revising chamber. Effective revision sometimes requires the bin. Delaying unsatisfactory legislation for a limited period is not adequate to what, constitutionally, we need our checking chamber to be able to do.
Ireland’s Seanad may only delay and not veto – and that has proved inadequate to the point that the government elected in 2011 planned to abolish the Seanad within a proposed major reform of the constitution.
A Senate needs to have and use real power – but it may not need to come via a veto. However, given that there is no interest in major constitutional reform – and we accept that serial targeted revision is the most stable way to introduce major change, a veto is still the only way to empower a Senate properly while it exists in an incompletely coherent constitutional structure.
The proposed revision
If the proposed replacement of the Lords by a Senate were to be wisely and thoughtfully introduced, we would have two houses: one a proposing and legislative house and one a scrutinising and revising house – as we do at the moment, The difference would be that each would be elected by universal franchise.
Where there is a perceived need for legislation on a specific matter, it could be constructive if this came to the Senate first simply as an issue for discussion, with the results going back to the proposing house before it took the matter into the form of proposed legislation. This would then return to the Senate for scrutiny and proposed revision – at which point the Senate would approve it, possibly pending its wish to see specific amendments; and, if these were not made, decide to consent or, in matters of serious potential harm, apply the veto.
Candidates for Senate would arise from nominations, shortlisted for a final vote. The sourcing of nominations, the procedures and appointees for short listing them for election and the natures of potential multiple electorates – would be serious matters.
In the framing of these elements, self-interested political intervention – some of it deliberately limiting the role and power of the people – would be inevitable and would have to be circumvented.
A Senate has the capacity to be the people’s house, as the proposing and legislative house is the province of the party machines.
A people’s house – free of the rude mechanicals of politics, operating in a protective role where wisdom, experience and genuine thought were the rule – would offer a balance in our political system that currently we do not have.
Such a Senate has the capacity to revitalise popular engagement in democracy.
It is therefore important that a Senate should not be framed from within the current political system at any level. This would only replicate itself and protect its own interests.
A way must be found to have the nature and operation of this important and exciting body envisioned and thought through entirely elsewhere – and not in the realms of any elite. And whatever is finally proposed would need to be finessed and endorsed in a referendum.