By Jamie O’Dell and Ben Norris
The Green Party has always been big on electoral reform; for years they’ve pushed for proportional representation when it comes to national elections, as the country’s first past the post system tends to be punitive for smaller parties even if they receive a significant share of the vote. Reforming and democratising the House of Lords in particular has sat high on their agenda, coupled with their need for a substantial electoral and constitutional shakeup.
Molly Scott Cato, one of the most outspoken voices in the Green Party, announced in summer 2020 that she was running to be a Green lord; a system she’s described as ‘random’ and ‘medieval’. This was something demonstrated all too clearly by cross-bench peer Lord Kilcooney last Monday when he described Kamala Harris, the vice-president election of the United States with Jamaican-Indian heritage, on Twitter as ‘the Indian’.
Given these previous statements and her desire to see the Lords abolished, the desire to sit in the chamber might seem paradoxical to some. So, in an interview with Amplify Stroud, she explained why she decided to put herself forward.
“We want to see a proportional system in both houses,” explained Scott Cato during a phone call earlier in October. “We shouldn’t need to debate whether the people who make your laws should be elected. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.” She outlined an alternative upper chamber which would have a total of 300 members elected and appointed in three different ways.
“You’d have 100 from a national list, which would mean you only need 1% of support to get someone in so you have diversity; 100 from a regional list using the system that we used for the European Parliament – a high threshold that would keep smaller parties out but means regions would receive direct representation. And 100 would be appointed by an electoral college as it’s good to have the experts that you do in the House of Lords.”
The value of this idea, aside from it being well thought-out and taking many competing considerations into account, is also that it provides a viable alternative to the House of Lords. A common problem when discussing the abolition of anything being an inability to conceive of, or consider an alternative.
“You have to be careful that the people who choose the lords are the right people,” Scott Cato added. “At the moment it’s just Toffs and Cronies. It’s ridiculous that we have hereditary lords, makes us a laughing stock – so they have to go.” In an interview with Bright Green published in August, Scott Cato said that if she was elected to the House of Lords she’d table an amendment for the House of Lords to be abolished.
“I’d have to work out the best way when I got there,” she explained. “You can’t just walk in and say ‘you’re rubbish and I’m going to abolish you’ – that would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. But a lot of lords can’t defend this arcade medieval system of allocating power.” A brief pause. “Although some Tories like Rees-Mogg would.”
Scott Cato feels her proposal is quite moderate and that it would tackle the bloated nature of the current House, which is the second biggest legislative chamber in the world after Beijing’s House of the People. “A good thing about the regional list aspect (emulating the system used for the European Parliament) is that it would redress the total bias towards London that we currently have. The electoral college members would be experts bringing their knowledge.”
Of course, her motion on the House of Lords abolition is unlikely to be successful itself. Scott Cato stated that if she were appointed, a lot of what she would work on would be responding to the legislative agenda of the government. “Demystifying [how the House operates] is a big thing – Natalie Bennett, the existing Green lord, does a lot of this. But in terms of actual issues I would certainly focus on economics – at the moment post-Covid recovery, a transition into the economies of the future and the managed decline of industries like the aviation sector.”
Asked how she would hold herself accountable, Scott Cato said that as well as making her own systems of accountability via media, she would also feel as though she represented the South West as she did as an MEP, and would continue to do so if elected to the House of Lords. “I’d also represent the Greens. Thousands, millions want Green Party representation and I would want to do that. I also feel like I would be standing up for nature, and connection with the non-human world. Only a Green would say that to you.”
On the topic of democratic reform, Scott Cato is clear in her belief that the current UK government is undermining democracy, and that we need a written constitution to protect against abuses like this. “It’s so important that we have a clear system of rules – prorogation and Brexit being clear cases of abuse of process. Anywhere else, like Germany, would have that written down in a constitution, which would have our basic and human rights enshrined.” The UK Cabinet Manual, first announced by Gordon Brown in 2010, does consolidate several aspects of how the government operates, but it only describes the existing rules and doesn’t set the practice in stone.
“The most important change,” continued Scott Cato, “is proportional representation in the voting system. We can’t have a system of majority rule – that only happens in authoritarian states or in countries that inherited our electoral system.” She envisions a multi-party system more akin to the EU Parliament or the German party model. “Right now people vote against something, main parties don’t have to do a good job. They just wait for the election and frighten people. You can see this in the US right now – a two-party system leads to division and poor performance. Marginal seats are an abomination and all seats and votes should be equal.”
Regardless of whether you’re a supporter or detractor, Molly Scott Cato clearly doesn’t suffer from a lack of vision. Her ideas for transforming the upper house of Parliament unarguably contain the detail needed to make them viable. However, the question of if reforming the Lords from within is viable remains to be seen, and hinges on Scott Cato’s confirmation to the House. As a legislative body that has the power to amend and block legislation proposed in the Commons the Lords is currently proving itself functional enough, but it could definitely benefit from being brought into the 21st century – time will tell if Scott Cato will be the one to achieve this.