Make the Lords a Senate?

One of our team, Michael Shilliday, also a lead blogger at the Young Unionist blog. His most recent post is a consideration of radical reform of Westminster’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, which he argues should be made fully democratic and re-christened as the UK Senate.

  • Gum

    It ought to be fully democratic, but the Lords is only one part of a constitutio that is in serious need of revision. I know many see its uncodified, ‘flexible’ and ‘pragmatic’ nature as a strength but I really dont think it works anymore. The UK needs a fully elected upper house, with powers beyond that of mere supervision/ studying of bills; an independent Lord Chancellor and attorney general; and (I know this is a stretch) an executive that is not part of the legislature.

  • Pete Baker

    Well, it’s a half-decent attempt to tackle the issue.. I suppose I’ll give him that.. spelling aside. *ahem*

    One point let’s it down though:

    “My question on Commons supremacy is “so what?” This suggestion is also I feel disingenuous given the clear example of the US Senate as a way of avoiding such.”

    Except the US Senate avoids the question of supremacy not, as Michael goes on to suggest, by a different timing of elections.. but because there’s a written constitution, and a Supreme court, governing how the system operates.

  • Pete Baker

    Which, I see, is something akin to Gum’s suggestion.

  • Michael Shilliday

    Hadn’t properly proof read it, still haven’t in truth but it should be a bit better now.

  • Pete Baker


    a bit better 😉

    But there’s still the question on the Commons supremacy. You have, I would suggest, not properly addressed that particular question

  • Michael Shilliday

    I’m not convinced that supremacy is necessary – why is gridlock a bad thing? Why should one house be more important than another?

  • Gum

    Again, I think Commons supremacy is a principle of a different era. It has its firm foundations in the democratic ideal but, ironically, democracy today needs new safeguards from the Commons!

  • Pete Baker


    I’m not arguing that one house should be more important than the other.

    The question on Commons supremacy arises because, at present, one house is.

    How that question is resolved must be addressed.. and it isn’t addressed – “so what?” – in your article.

    Hence my point on a written constitution and the US Supreme Court.

  • Michael Shilliday

    I don’t see your point. If you elect a Senate so that it doesn’t mirror the Commons then what is the point in Commons Supremacy? Repeal the 1911 Act and jobs done.

  • Pete Baker


    Unless you resolve the question in the manner I suggested, written constitution and Supreme Court, you end up with two equally democratically elected Houses.

    Unless you argue that one is more democratic than the other, and I don’t see how you can, both can equally argue for the right of final say on legislation.. unless the question of supremacy is resolved.

  • Michael Shilliday

    I don’t see why a written constitution is required, in the US constitution neither house has the final say on legislation, works fine.

  • Keith M

    I don’t see any U.K. government want to create a more powerful second tier of leglislators. Once they have a mandate through the House of Commons, that should be enough.

    Look across the Atlantic and you can see how administrations can be frozen into paralysis by a multi-tiered legislature.

    The question is, is there a need for an upper house at all? At least the U.K. the law lords have a dual function as as supreme court. The rest should just be pensioned off. I would apply the same logic to this country and get rid of the Seanad. Several countries work quite well with a uni-cameral legislature.

  • Gum

    No govt would want a powerful second chamber as it has the potential to frustrate their programme for governance! However, this is necessary in my opinion. A system of checks and balances can be frustrating but they do prevent an elected dictatorship.

  • Pete Baker

    It works fine in the US, Michael, because the relationship between the two houses, and the separate executive, is enshrined in that written constitution.. with a Supreme Court to oversee it.

    Create two Houses of equal democratic standing in the UK, without resolving how they are to co-operate, and, the first time the two Houses seriously disagree.. the whole thing risks total collapse.

  • Michael Shilliday

    I doubt that collapse is on the cards. The issue of the executive and legislative functions overlapping is perhaps something that would need to be addressed, but I don’t think that a written constitution is needed for that.

  • Pete Baker


    The risk is there unless the question is resolved.. no government would move forward on an elected second chamber without first resolving that question.

    My reference to a written constitution came about because of your initial comparison with the US Senate.

    But how the question is resolved is of less importance than the need to resolve it.

  • Occasional Commentator

    In the U.S. today, as in pre-1911 Westminster, both Houses need to pass the same bill before it becomes law. If they can’t agree, the bill simply doesn’t get passed. It wasn’t a problem then, and its wouldn’t be a problem now. In fact, the Presidential veto puts up more barriers, but still the U.S. manages to function.

    If the Lords/Senate in the UK is to be elected, then it doesn’t matter if one house is given supremacy or not. All the representatives will have to account for their voting at election time, just as in the US today.

  • victor

    One issue that would need to be addressed before any constitutional reform would be meaningful would be that of party funding.

    In america the parties are not centrally funded so the representitives are more concerned with perochial issues rather than toeing the party line in the hope of a nice cabinet job.

    As it stands can you really imagine the parties of one house voting a differently to the other on anything?

    If these crinkles where ironed out first I think there is something to be said for a bi-cameral system, one house elected more often than the other so you have a highly democratic house that is restrained by a more conservative one.

    If for no other reason than more legislators means more debate means better legislation.

  • Brian Boru

    The Irish Senate/Seanad might offer a good model for a UK one in some respects i.e. “panels” representing sections of society e.g. universities, labour, education etc. However to be an effective revising chamber it should not have the measly 9 month delaying power of the Irish counterpart. The Lords is a discredited institution because of the undemocratic way it blocked Home Rule in 1894 and delayed it in 1912.

  • PHIL

    One suggestion that has been mooted is that when/if England gets home rule and the House of commons is returned to its rightful place as England’s parlaiment, the House of Lords could become a debating chamber for what is left of UK wide issues. Whatever it becomes though, it is surely time for it to cease to be a semi-retirement home for old politicians and party donors and for it to be a fully democratic part of the state with elected members.

  • joeCanuck


    You have lived (or do live) in the USA so you have to be aware that it doesn’t work fine. It sort of works if you are prepared to hold your nose (or bite your lip) at the utterly sleazy tactics that are frequently used to get the passage of a Bill through both Houses (slipped in items and refusing, through the Supreme Court, to allow the President a line-item veto).
    Who will have veto rights in the suggested reform in the U.K.? The prime minister? The Queen?
    You cannot compare a country with a written constitution with one that depends on common law.
    It’s apples and oranges.

  • tally

    The Lords is the West Lothian Question MK11.
    why should an elected or unelected non English peer have a say in the England’s domestic affairs,when much legislation for Scotland and Wales by passes the Lords?.
    At present peers are deemed non geographic,so non English peers are getting away with it.
    Best get the WLQ sorted first then look at the lords.

  • Keith M

    I am shocked to discover that for once, I agree entirely with you!

    I fail to see the point in second chambers. If they are unelected, they subvert democracy. If they are elected, then what purpose do they serve that 1 elected chamber governed by a codified constitution cannot achieve?

  • IJP

    The point of second chambers is to ensure the quality of legislation (in most cases).

    I still await a coherent case to be made as to how an upper house full of party-political “politicians” is going to be better at this task than an upper house with experts specifically chosen for their knowledge in various fields, people with vast experience of legislative process, and a significant independent component.

    I’m not remotely against reform, but firstly we have to be clear as to why it is necessary, and secondly we have to recognize the full range of things that need reformed (it is quite correct that Lords reform, devolution, electoral system changes and so on are all part of the same issue).

  • Alan

    You also need to look at the composition of the Lords. There is a very dynamic balance. It recently sat at Labour 206, Conservative 209, Lib Dem 74, Cross Bench 199 and Others – a handful or so. Effectively, the balance of power would lie with the Cross Bench, if they could get themselves to vote.

    I understand that the direction is towards election, in order to get away from the need for working peers.

    IJP is right on improving legislation. Aside from Orders, it actually works quite well in revising bills.