Ensuring the will of the people

Published: 22/07/1999   by: Article by Billy published on BBC News Online 22 July, 1999

Tony Blair is pressing on with his plans to reform the UK's democracy. A commission headed by Lord Wakeham is also considering what should replace the current House of Lords. Musician Billy Bragg gave evidence to the commission on 27 July. In the first in a series of articles for BBC News Online on Lords reform by people across the political spectrum, he sets out a vision of an elected upper chamber free of patronage.

The reform of the House of Lords offers us the opportunity to renew public confidence in the ballot box as a means of improving the society we live in. However, this cannot be achieved if we do not remove the power of patronage from our political process. There can only be one criteria for the composition of a reformed upper house: it must be the democratic expression of the will of the people.

However, a directly elected second chamber would lead to political gridlock. Bi-cameral government can only function properly if one house has primacy over the other.

Turning one election into two

Furthermore, poor turn-outs on recent polling days seem to suggest that the electorate has ballot fatigue, making the prospect of more elections unattractive.

It is only the general election that brings out a significant number of voters. Could not a reformed upper house get its legitimacy from this result?

Whilst the Commons retained the first-past-the-post system - how else are we to get rid of the likes of Michael Portillo? - the composition of the second chamber could be provided by tallying all the votes used in the general election and distributing the seats proportionately using the list system of proportional representation.

In order that the new system might better reflect society, it could be mandatory that all party lists alternate between male and female nominees. Under the arrangement, the primacy of the Commons would be preserved.

MPs would have been directly elected to represent their constituency whilst members of the reformed chamber would not have this direct mandate. Based on recent election results this system would also have the benefit of denying the government of the day an outright majority in the second chamber.

Watchdog and revising chamber
The role of the reformed upper house would primarily be that of a revising chamber with the power to scrutinise, but not block, government policy. It would also serve the function of a constitutional watchdog.

Armed with a written constitution the second chamber would be able to overturn policy deemed unconstitutional.

In order that some distance be kept between the functions of the upper house and that of the executive, no member of the second chamber should be allowed to become a government minister.

Reform of the House of Lords is the first step in an on-going programme designed to revitalise the relationship between participatory democracy and civic responsibility.

Only by choosing a method of composition that is both straight forward to understand and relatively simple to implement can we hope to engage the interest of the general public and, in doing so, demonstrate clearly to them how they will be the main beneficiaries of these great reforms.

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