Which is the best electoral system for the House of Lords?

The benefits of proportional representation for a reformed House of Lords are clear Photograph: Roger Harris. Parliamentary copyright 2019

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 27th December 2023

Whenever the issue of creating an elected Second Chamber comes up, a common question is how it should be elected. Thankfully, one of the areas of agreement on Lords reform over the years has been on the issue of which electoral system.

The electoral systems suggested for the House of Lords over the years have reflected the priorities for a reformed upper house. Over various reform proposals these priorities have included: ensuring the House of Lords has a different party balance to the House of Commons, that it avoids a single party majority, encourages diversity in representation and more independent as well as independently minded members.

Choosing the right electoral system is key to achieving many of these goals.

The suggested electoral systems for the Lords

Of the nine major reform proposals put forward since the 1999 reforms, the majority have chosen either the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or a form of regional list PR for an elected House of Lords.

The reasons for this are clear. Successive governments have recognised the role of PR systems in creating more balanced political chambers which would ensure that the Lords is a chamber where all voices are heard but none dominate.

List Proportional Representation for the Lords

Regional List PR has been put forward in a number of reform proposals.

With List PR systems each party publishes an ordered list of candidates. Voters will vote for either a party or party’s candidates (depending on whether it is a closed or open list). In a closed list system if a party wins five seats, the top five candidates on their list will be elected.

List PR would give parties greater control over who is elected to the chamber, which would present an opportunity to shape the experience and expertise of members. Parties may wish to choose existing active members of the current House of Lords to put at the top of their lists for instance.

However, if the intention is to elect members of the second chamber who are more than just the representatives of their parties, then list systems (particularly closed lists) can present a problem as voters are not given the option of choosing between candidates, and list systems are also unlikely to elect independent candidates.

Whilst open lists may provide an answer, closed lists would be unlikely to look very different to the current system of political patronage, albeit one with a more even party balance.

A Second Chamber elected via the Single Transferable Vote (STV)

The 2011 Draft House of Lords Reform Bill selected STV to ensure that those elected have ‘a personal mandate from the electorate, distinct from that of their party’. At the time, we gave evidence to the Lord’s committee on the bill, showing how STV would work for a reformed second chamber.

The Single Transferable Vote is a system of preferential proportional representation where voters rank individual candidates. Voters can choose to share their preferences across different parties and pick individual candidates.

Compared to other systems, STV would likely go furthest to fulfilling the aspirations of a more politically diverse and independently minded chamber where voters would be able to select candidates according to their expertise and experience, as well as ensuring representation from across the regions and nations of the UK.

There have been no serious suggestions that First Past the Post should be used for an elected second chamber. The benefits of proportional representation for a reformed House of Lords are clear to parliamentarians when it comes to elections to the Lords, but the benefits would also apply in the other place.

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