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Democracy without a second chamber?

Capitol Hill Like the American model, the standard parliamentary model has two chambers.

But how does democracy work when you only have one?

The American system is based on checks and balances

Management consultants would call it "thinking the unthinkable". Stop for a second and ask whether Britain actually needs an upper chamber at all. Would Britain be less democratic without one?

Dennis Skinner
Dennis Skinner: reform would only encourage the chattering classes
Or, do we feel we ought to have one simply because it's always been there? Why stop just at abolishing hereditary peers - why not follow the example of New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden and abolish the upper house altogether?

There are many countries around the world which make do with only one legislative body - the technical term for this is unicameral. In fact, there are well over 100 unicameral systems in the world, compared with a mere 63 bicameral parliaments (those with two chambers.

UNICAMERAL governments have just one legislative chamber. There are 115 around the world, including New Zealand, Sweden, Finland and Israel. BICAMERAL systems have an Upper and lower house of some description. In Britain that's currently the Lords and the Commons. In America it's Senate and House of Representatives. Sixty four countries have opted for this arrangement.
 For a full list of UNICAMERAL and BICAMERAL parliaments, click here

Some are fledgling democracies like Slovakia and the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. Some have directly elected president as well as just one legislative chamber. And a few, such as Sweden, have chosen to abolish their upper houses because of their associations with what are seen as outdated concepts such as nobility versus the people.

It's a view which still finds some sympathy on Labour's old left. The veteran MP, Dennis Skinner, for example, believes in outright abolition, rather than reform or replacement. He's worried that reforming the Lords would produce a haven for the chattering classes, as unrepresentative in their own way as the old hereditary peers.

So, can a democracy function properly with only one chamber?

New Zealand: a case study

What happened in New Zealand is instructive: its upper house was abolished in the early 1950s.

Quote Mark I'm not in favour of the elected system and I'm not in favour of the system where the chattering classes are going to reproduce themselves in the Lords Quote Mark

Dennis Skinner, MP, Labour
New Zealand's parliament - like the Australian colonies of the same period - began life in the 1850s as a bicameral parliament, modelled on the British system.

The members of the upper house were nominated by the government of the day: as a small and relatively newly-established nation, there was no tradition of aristocracy to build on.

After a long period of Labour party rule in New Zealand, by the late 1940s, the upper house came to be dominated by nominees from one party.

When the Opposition took power in 1950, it simply created enough new members of the upper house to vote itself out of existence.

The lower house never did manage to agree on a replacement for the old upper chamber. But a surprising side effect was that the remaining chamber was forced to sharpen up its act.

"Abolition forced the lower house to improve its scrutiny," according to Professor Antony Wood of the University of Otago in New Zealand. "It now has a better committee system, so that MPs can examine things such as delegated legislation and government finances." It also introduced Question Time, so that individual ministers can be held to account for their departments' actions.

Professor Wood also sees a direct link between the abolition of the upper house and the introduction (in 1996) of Proportional Representation: "With just one house and no PR, there is no check at all on the power of the Prime Minister. With a hung house, there is," he says.

While there are worries about voter apathy in local elections in New Zealand, turn-out in General Elections is well over 80 per cent.

How two-chamber systems work across the world

Helen Clark
New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark celebrates her election victory in 1999. Turn-out was 85 per cent.
One common argument in favour of a two chamber system is that it should help protect against the "tyranny of the majority" by acting as a brake on the powers of the government.

To do this, the second chamber needs to be distinctively different from the first, and have sufficient powers to stand up to it. But, if the balance of power between the two isn't right, gridlock can result.

Across the world, many countries have come up with their own ways of solving these problems:

Distinctively Different

Regional representation : many countries try to even out regional imbalances. In the US, every state has two senators, no matter what its population size. In Germany the largest state has 30 times the population of the smallest state, but only twice the number of members of the Bundesrat.

More mature: several states have a minumum age requirement for their upper house. In Canada, senators must be at least 30; in France, it's 35 and in Italy it's 40.


The Statue of Liberty
The American budget shutdown of 1995 meant the Statue of Liberty was closed to tourists
The powers of the second chamber also vary greatly. In many countries, as in Britain, the upper house has a limited power of veto, but in Australia and the USA, the upper house has full power of veto, to block whatever legislation it does not like.

The American system is often described as one of checks and balances, like a finely tuned machine. But, when the President comes from one party, and Congress is controlled by another, the result can be deadlock. Here in Britain, that might seem unusual. But in America, opposing parties have controlled the Executive and the Legislature for 25 out of the past 30 years.

In 1992, President Bush senior found himself facing gridlock with a Democrat-controlled Congress. Moves to tackle the federal budget deficit, rising crime, state schools and political finance were all caught in the stalemate between President and Congress.

"More often than not," wrote the Washington Post at the time, "Congress's Democratic majority rejects Bush's proposals, Bush vetoes proposals from the Democrats and Congress cannot override the vetoes. Bills are delayed or killed and vital matters are ignored, trivialised or manipulated for partisan advantage."

Two years later, the situation was reversed. A Democrat in the White House - Bill Clinton - found his health care legislation - the big idea of his presidency - kicked into touch by Congress.

And in 1995, nearly a million civil servants had to take unpaid leave, because a Republican-controlled Congress would not agree President Clinton's spending plans. The "budget shutdown" led to the suspension of many government functions, such as tax collecting and the issuing of passports and visas.

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