Chris Game


You’ll doubtless recall last weekend’s news – the assassination of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former, longest-serving Prime Minister, and still head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction.

He was overwhelmingly Japan’s best-known politician, home and abroad – and, in case you’re struggling, his successor as PM was/is Fumio Kishida. Note to Conservative leadership candidates: Kishida’s political intuition led him, while campaigning for last year’s leadership election, to post a cosy family snap, showing his apron-wearing wife serving him dinner – and still he won! Different cultures!

Back to the serious stuff. Abe was shot from behind, for motives that are still unclear, but while street-campaigning during the run-up to Sunday’s elections to the Upper House of the national legislature – confusingly (for us) known as the ‘House of Councillors’.

They’re of course national, not local, politicians – though, as a longstanding member of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies, I’ve often fervently wished the UK did have such a national elected and democratically representative ‘House of Councillors’, rather than our unelected patronage palace that is today’s House of Lords. More of which later.

Japan’s Upper House ‘Councillors’ aren’t themselves local government representatives either. Rather, they are today’s successors to what, under the previous, British-drafted Meiji Constitution (1889-1947), translated as the then largely unelected and seriously posh ‘House of Peers’ or ‘Upper House’. Today there are 245 of them, serving six-year terms, with half elected every three years.

Any assassination is obviously shocking, political ones no exception. And statistically even the latter can seem difficult to comprehend, never mind statutorily address. Take gun-ownership rates. We’ve had two MPs assassinated in just the past six years: Batley and Spen’s Jo Cox and Southend-on-Sea’s Sir David Amess. Cox was indeed shot and stabbed by a far-right extremist, but Amess was repeatedly stabbed by an Islamic State fanatic. By international standards, UK civilian gun ownership rate is lowish: roughly five ‘firearms’ per 100 people. Highest by far – and nearly double the next highest (Falkland Islands, as you possibly didn’t guess) – is, of course, the US, with 120 per 100. Almost unsurprisingly, it sees over 45,000 gun-related deaths a year – yet in this century ‘only’ one recorded political assassination roughly every two years.

For those of us who lived through the 1960s, and aware that the US has over half a million local politicians alone, that last (Wicki) stat seems remarkable. Modern-day Japan, though, prides itself on having one of the world’s lowest gun ownership rates – about 1/16th of the UK’s, 1/400th of America’s – so restrictive that Shinzo Abe’s assassin had to assemble his weapon himself into something reportedly “resembling a bazooka” held together with duct tape.

Abe was shot from behind, for motives that are still unclear, during the run-up to the elections to the Upper House of the national legislature

Enough of guns. Last Friday’s whole thing was horrendous, and yet … there was no serious question of Sunday’s elections being even postponed. Quite the contrary – with no one doubting it’s what Abe himself would have decreed.

Turnout was duly up, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party gained seats and, together with its conservative coalition partner Komeito (‘New Peace’), regained the crucial supermajority lost in the 2019 election. Though the Upper House is the less powerful in the Japanese two-chamber Parliament, this supermajority would have been key to Shinzo Abe’s medium-term aim of amending the US-drafted and deliberately humiliating 1945 Constitution preventing Japan from maintaining, in principle, even defensive “armed forces with war potential”. More immediate positive news was that Sunday’s election saw an all-time record 35 (28%) of the 125 contested seats go to women. Which may not sound great, but verges on humungous in Japan, where women’s presumption even to stand for election has traditionally attracted everything from gender-based abuse to overt sexual harassment.

And talking of Upper House elections, it’s time to return to the UK.

Internationally, there are obviously loads of both unicameral (single chamber) and bicameral national legislatures, in a rough ratio of probably about 60/40. Fewer bicamerals because they’re mainly larger countries, splitting ‘lower house’ law-making from ‘upper house’ revision and scrutiny.

In dealing with Japan and the UK, we’re obviously interested in these bicamerals, and their differing – how to put it – recruitment methods. Japan, we’ve seen, uses direct election – likewise, for instance, Australia, Italy, Spain, and the US. Belgium, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands use indirect election – by regional parliaments or councils, whose members are themselves, of course, directly elected.

Then there’s the Canadian Senate, entirely PM-appointed, but on a regional basis and with at least a fixed total size (105), and retiring age (75). Similar to our House of Lords, except we don’t have even those minimal controls – as you may recall from last week’s elections.

What? You don’t recall? Well, thank goodness for the Electoral Reform Society, who dutifully recorded how, “just weeks after 70,000 people voted to elect two new MPs in the Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-elections, two hereditary peers were gifted the life-long right to make the laws we all live under with just 27 votes between them.”

Wait – it gets better, or worse. The vacancies were created by the retirement/death of two Conservative peers, meaning that surviving Conservative peers – all potentially 45 of them – constituted the electorate, just like this week in the Commons.

There were no fewer than 12 former or newly-inherited peers as candidates – all men, naturally – the two elected being (honestly!) Lord Remnant, with 22 first-preference votes, and Lord Wrottesley, just 5 votes, a self-described “closet-tree hugger”.

“You couldn’t make it up” is wildly over-used, but … well, you couldn’t, could you?


Chris Game, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham

This blog was originally published in the Birmingham Post, 14 July 2022