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House of Lords, a proposal for reform

Originally written in Feb 2017 and updated to take account of the June general election.

Quentin Letts commenting on the state opening of parliament on 21st June 2017,

"Awaiting Her Majesty was the ghastly, fake, Brexit-hating, pocket-filling, claret-gargling, cliche-spouting modern House of Lords: a worm-farm of bien pensant quangocrats, activist judges, busybodies, fallen stooges, ex-MPs and a few last mouldering viscounts. Suggestion to Downing Street: why not steal a march on Corbyn’s rich middle-class Labour revolutionaries – who as I write this are mounting a spittle-flecked protest at the gates, in risibly small numbers – and axe those last hereditaries?
Some of them would be glad to be put out of their misery and never again have to listen to a turgid Europhile speech by Lord (Quentin) Davies of Stamford, whose hair had yesterday changed from its old raven to something closer to orange.
The Upper House is never going to be helpful to the Tories and if Theresa May ejected the last blue-bloods she might at least create a sense of radicalism. "

The Theory - the safeguards - 2015 outcome - 1997 outcome - 2017 outcome - conclusions

Even assuming that a second chamber is desirable, it is far too large. A membership of 90 sounds about right, though a solution should be scalable to any reasonable number.


The current membership is 804, comprising 252 Tories, 202 Labour, 102 LibDems, 26 Bishops, 177 Crossbench, 31 non-affiliated and 14 other (minor parties). There are 90 hereditary peers within those counts. (from 1Mar17). The Law Lords became the Supreme Court. They can return to the Lords individually if they retire but new members of the Supreme Court will not get a Lords seat.

A few principles to begin with:

  1. 1. The makeup should broadly reflect the current Commons
  2. 2. The party of majority in the Commons should not hold a majority in the Lords.
  3. 3. Every party that has a seat in the Commons should have at least one seat in the Lords
  4. 4. The Lords should be reconfigured after every general election but not fiddled with in response to by-elections.
  5. 5. Of the 90 seats, at least 5 will be outside the proportional party distribution.
  6. 6. There is no sensible reason for bishops to be there, but what the hell, lets have one and allow the possibility of other religions prioritised on the head count in the last census or other appropriate study, the official body of that religion to nominate.
  7. 7. No hereditary peers by right. Affiliated hereditary peers might be chosen by a nominating group but their eldest child becomes an ordinary person.

[Calculation before the 2017 general election.]

So far we have 90 seats, 5 non-party, so the Tories get  (90-5)/2 = 42 seats.
In the Commons there are currently :
330 Tories, 229 Labour, 54 SNP, 9 LibDem and 7 other parties less than that.

A Lords split on this basis would give:

Tory 42
Labour 29
SNP 6 (rounded down)
LibDem, DUP, Sinn Fein, Plaid, SDLP, UUP, Green UKIP 1 each

Total 85 and 5 left.

The political parties would then pick up sides (just like football at school) from those existing Lords who turn up on a nominated day. This would normally be shortly after a general election, but there will be an initial run for the first cull (oops) downsize [written when the 2015 intake was expected to last until 2020]. If there are less than their entitlement to choose from then they can nominate 50% of the shortfall.

An example here. Say on pickup day only 37 Tory peers turned up out of the 42 full entitlement, they can nominate (42-37)/2 = 2.5 = 2 new peers. The number is always rounded down with the exception of single membership entitlement which remains as 1 under principle 3.

If all the political parties take their full share then there are at least 5 seats to allocate, though there could be more with a different Commons split.

1 Bishop – it doesn’t have to be that same one every time, just the one nominated by Lambeth Palace.
1 Law Lord – nominated the Supreme Court.
1 from the armed forces, nominated as they choose.
1 by popular choice – I have no idea yet how this will operate, but it will give us a notion whether we want more of these.
1 spare – suggestions welcome.

2015 Summary
Commons - 330 Tories, 229 Labour, 54 SNP, 9 LibDem and 7 other parties less than that
Lords - Tory 42, Labour 29, SNP 6, LibDem, DUP, Sinn Fein, Plaid, SDLP, UUP, Green UKIP 1 each, 1 bishop, 1 law lord, 1 armed forces, 2 appointed by other means.

That is the first cut to reduce from 850 to 90. There are some more rules that try to ensure good behaviour and diligence:

  1. 1. During a term of government, if a Lord dies or resigns then an alternative can be appointed by the nominating party or body of their group.
  2. 2. If a Lord fails to attend for a calendar month of sittings then that seat is lost for the current parliament. More precise rules will be needed to weed out the taxi running jokers. This applies to party Lords and to the religious, judicial and military Lords, but possibly not to the popular choice and spare Lords.
  3. 3. Once a particular Lord leaves their seat for whatever reason they cannot return in the current parliament, this to avoid seat churning.

Come the next general election, pick up seats and nominate again.

1997 outcome
That seems to work for the current party split but what does it look like when there is a large majority?

In the first Blair parliament the split was 418 Labour, 165 Tory, 46 LibDem and 29 others from 7 parties plus the Speaker, a total of 659. (There was one independent member and any such will be left out of this scheme.) Wikipedia

Labour gets a minority under principle 2, but their large majority in the Commons means that there are more spares to play with. The breakdown is:
Labour 42, Tory 16, LibDems 4 and one each for SNP, UUP, SDLP, Plaid, Sinn Fein, DUP and the UK Unionists. The total of 69 leaves 21 to fill.
There is no clear case for having any more than one military or judicial Lords seat, but the religious representation can now be expanded to embrace multiculturalism and take, say, 5 seats. With 7 of the 21 gone there are 14 to split between popular and other. Whatever form the appointment of the 14 takes, please let it not be an election because that is a pointless and expensive duplication of the Commons. Appointments from useful bodies and clever use of the National Lottery seem the way forward.

1997 Summary
Commons - 418 Labour, 165 Tory, 46 LibDem and 29 others from 7 parties
Lords - Labour 42, Tory 16, LibDems 4 and one each for SNP, UUP, SDLP, Plaid, Sinn Fein, DUP and the UK Unionists, 1 military, 1 law lord, 5 religious
Other - 14

2017 outcome
Our first try with a minority government.
Commons - 317 Tories, 262 Labour, 35 SNP, 12 LibDem, 10 DUP 7 Sinn Fein, 4 Plaid, 1 Green.
Lords - 42 Tory, 34 Labour, 4 SNP, and one each for LibDem, DUP, Sinn Fein, Plaid and Green. 1 bishop, 1 law lord, 1 armed forces, 2 appointed by other means.

If the basic premise of 90 seats and no majority for the party in office is sound, then the system seems to cope with a small, a large, or no Commons majority. Some work needs to be done on filling the spaces with large majorities.
Note that in each worked example, Sinn Fein was allocated one seat which, presumably, they would not take up. Under the safeguards, this would be lost after a month and remain unused for the duration of the parliament.

See also:
The Guardian, Guardian again, Wikipedia,, Electoral Reform Soc.,

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