Monday, October 26, 2015

Tax Credits: Who is the more representative - the Lords or the Commons?

Tax Credits: Who is the more representative - the Lords or the Commons?

I am not a statistician, but I am interested in the strength, persuasiveness and validity of arguments. In recent days it has been argued in connected with the debate on Tax Credits, that the view of the Lords lacks legitimacy - it is unrepresentative. But is this actually the case?

No doubt the most important arguments in this debate are around fairness, justice for the lowest paid, and the injustice of increasing tax relief for the rich while removing it for the poor.

But in the midst of this debate - which, given the resolve of the Tories is unlikely to have much impact on the final outcome - is a constitutional argument, about the role of the House of Lords in possibly holding up what is described as "the will of the Commons". The unelected Lords are not supposed to stop any financial measure from passing through parliament. This is a convention, not a matter of constitutional law - like so much in our British uncodified Constitution - and even though this measure was not included in the Conservative Manifesto earlier this year, and it seems was even explicitly excluded as an option during the election campaign, convention (it is argued) decrees that the Lords must not frustrate the measure, as it is a financial measure, and the unelected Lords cannot stand in the way of an elected Commons on the principle of no taxation without representation.

The argument raises many questions, and no doubt many cynical observations, but just one struck me. Having been, for so many years, aware that the Lords had sat alongside the Commons with a large inbuilt Conservative majority - which had been reined in, from time to time, by these very conventions - I had not fully grasped that the Conservatives no longer have a majority in the Lords. The rather limited changes to the Lords which had taken place under Labour, and the consequence of the practice of appointing peers, had led to something of a lag in the manner in which the Lords reflects the membership of the Commons.

In many respects of course the Lords is very unrepresentative. By age, definitely, by its very design. And also by gender. Certainly also by social class. And - given the refusal of the Scottish Nationalists to appoint to the Lords - it has also become unrepresentative of the political composition of the UK.

It would also seem that the party make up of the Lords, too, is out of sync with the nation. After all, the LibDems have a huge number of peers (112) yet only 8 MPs, and UKIP, who gained a similar percentage of the votes in the General Election has just 2 peers. Of course, the Lords is not designed to be a proportionately representative chamber - but when there are such extreme variations, one might suppose that the argument that the Lords has no right to stand in the way of the Commons has particular validity.

But is this so? I wondered. And I looked at the figures. The results are a little surprising. Making a little allowance for the incompatibilities of the various systems, it would appear that, on this particular issue at least, far from being less representative of the electorate, in fact the Lords is closer to the expressed will of the electorate.

In the 2015 General election, with a clear programme for austerity (even if its details were kept unclear) the Conservatives gained the votes of just 24% of the electorate, which translated into 39% of the vote. Of the 61% who voted otherwise, the great majority supported parties with a much less enthusiastic approach to deficit reduction. This 24% of the electorate translated into 51% of the seats. They won. They have a mandate - but hardly an overwhelming or enthusiastic one.

By contrast, the Conservatives hold 31% of the seats in the Lords - less than their popular vote but still greater than their proportion of the electorate, and much closer to their actual support in the country. Similarly, Labour have just 26% of the seats in the Lords, against 36% in the Commons, but again this is much closer to the election result. Even for the LibDems, the "huge" number in the Lords (14%) is closer to their actual percentage of the vote (8%) than their handful of MPs in the Commons (1%). Of course, for other parties there is less of a correlation, but if we just consider the issue of Tax Credits, the Lords looks more representative than the Commons.

The numbers themselves, and a simple bar chart are below.

Suffice to say that whatever the arguments may be over the rightness of this measure (that's the REAL point), and whatever parliamentary convention may properly dictate, and however the parties may decide to act on these principles, if the argument comes down to whether the Lords lacks the legitimacy to block the measure because it is unrepresentative, it should be very clear - the Lords has greater democratic legitimacy (on this matter at least) than this Tory Government.

And that is why - irony of ironies - the Tories are talking of taking legislative steps to rein in the Lord's - steps threatened in the past only against Tory dominated Lords.

Note: Voter turnout in the General Election was 66.1%. "2015 % corrected" indicates the proportions of the entire electorate, not only those who cast their votes.


No comments: