MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04: Billy Bragg waits to perform before the start of an anti-austerity protest during the first day of the Conservative Party Autumn Conference 2015 on October 4, 2015 in Manchester, England. Up to 80,000 people are expected to attend a demonstration today organised by the TUC and anti-austerity protesters. Conservative Party members are in Manchester for its first conference as a party in a majority government since 1996. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Billy Bragg, the singer-songwriter and activist

The first Conservative prime minister not to enjoy a natural majority in the upper chamber has awoken to the need to do something about the House of Lords.

The removal of all but 92 of the hereditary peers in 1999 has left his government’s legislation vulnerable to an anti-Tory majority that has already savaged several major bills.

David Cameron has done his best to make up for Tory losses, appointing more peers than any prime minister since life peerages were introduced in 1958. Yet to recreate the Conservative majority enjoyed by his predecessors, he would need to double the size of his current complement of 251 peers.

Aware of how absurd that would be at a time when he is proposing to cut the cost of politics by removing 50 MPs from the House of Commons, Mr Cameron has instead chosen to curb their powers, proposing that the Lords should lose their veto over delegated or “secondary” legislation, which will allow the government to ram through contentious issues without detailed scrutiny.

Mr Cameron’s frustrations are understandable. An upper chamber that allows its members to sit for life can never be expected to reflect changes in public opinion.

“It is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons,” the prime minister said recently. Yet his means for achieving that is to create more Tory peers, a situation that could see membership of the Lords rise above 1,000 by 2020.

Instead of bending the constitutional rules to suit him, a better way would be to distribute the seats in the second chamber in proportion to the votes cast in the general election. That would connect the House of Lords to the same five-year cycle as the Commons, creating an upper house that reflects the will of the people.

Under our first-past-the-post system for electing MPs, only those votes that elect the winning candidate really count. The rest — more than half — go in the bin. Under my proposal, everyone’s vote would be tallied in each of the 12 regions and nations of the UK — the same ones we use for European elections.

Each region would elect 25 members taken from party lists, which would alternate between male and female candidates, ranked by their support in polls of local party members.

Members would sit for a fixed term of three parliaments. The result would be a chamber of 300, with one-third of members elected at each general election.

The conundrum of how to introduce democracy into the upper house without challenging the primacy of the Commons has held back Lords reform for more than a century. MPs rightly fear that the power of their direct mandate, given when a voter places a cross next to the name of a candidate on the ballot paper, would, if used to elect the upper house, undermine their primacy and create legislative gridlock.

The Lords is not a blank sheet of paper, but part of an existing legislature. Any democratic reforms must reflect its function within our constitution.

My proposed method creates a firewall between candidates and voters, so ensuring that the mandate given to the reformed upper house is secondary to the primacy that direct election confers on MPs.

Without the need for further elections, requiring a vastly reduced membership and abolishing their lordships’ jobs for life, the secondary mandate system offers the prime minister a means of reducing the cost of politics. It also gives him the opportunity to create an upper house that reflects the result of each general election.

With proportional representation for the regions and a new role in scrutinising EU legislation, Lords reform could be the key to revitalising democracy.

The writer is a singer-songwriter and activist

Letter in response to this article:

Lords could become a force for localism / From Michael Romberg

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