Monday, 2 February 2009

My Dream House

The shocking (to some) affair of the peers for hire has brought the longstanding and eternally unresolved issue of House of Lords reform back onto the agenda. How boring, you may think. Don't worry - it will doubtless go away again soon. The current government has no real incentive to deprive themselves of the vast power of patronage which the current set-up gives them. The likeliest eventual outcome - if there is to be proper reform - is the Conservative proposal of a predominantly elected House with some element of appointment to ensure the survival of a significant , Crossbench. This would be a perfectly reasonable solution; but don't hold your breath. The House of Patronage may well survive for decades yet.

In the meantime, a few idle suggestions.

The House of Lords itself is a curious historical amalgam. Generally, I quite like historical anomalies; but the half-hearted reforms of the past decade have only made the remaining medieval lumber increasingly hard to justify. The judges are now being kicked out, and removed to a new (and far more expensive) Supreme Court. This strikes me as being a terrible mistake, depriving the House of much-needed expertise. It also leaves 92 hereditary peers, who can at least claim a limited electoral legitimacy, many distinguished professionals, scientists and others appointed on merit, and a much great number of mediocre party time-servers who were have proved unable, or unwilling, to get elected properly to Parliament.

There are also the bishops, whose survival as a special interest group is scandalous. Removing them from the Upper House would not, of itself, disestablish the Church of England; nor would the essential concommitant, which would be to remove state influence from the appointment of bishops and archbishops. Last weekend the Russian Orthodox Church elected its new patriarch. Bishops, clergy, members of religious orders and representatives of the laity all had a say in the decision which, unlike the Roman conclave, did not take place behind locked doors. It seems odd to look to Russia for a lesson in democracy, but the sooner the General Synod of the Church of England adopts such a procedure, the better. The church should be allowed to run its own affairs, but it should not be allowed directly to influence general legislation.

And beyond this overdue removal of the theocrats? As the old Irish tourist direction has it, I wouldn't start from here. When it was first established in the Middle Ages, the House of Lords reflected the distribution of power and wealth, concentrated in the feudal landholding classes. The bishops (and, in those days, abbots) were represented, not because the king needed spiritual blessing upon his laws, but because they controlled vast estates and revenues. A similar chamber, established today, would (even after recent events) contain an unhealthy number of bankers, a smattering of industrialists and media tycoons - many of them foreign - a few entrepreneurs. It would also be stuffed full of government appointed quangocrats, who now wield Marcher-like power over vast swathes of British public and corporate life. So no change there, then.

Reflecting the realities of power and influence is a poor basis for a modern legislative assembly in what purports to be a liberal democracy, however. What, then, is the Upper House actually for? It's most commony called a "revising chamber" - the idea being that the main job of the House of Commons is to pass ill-considered, insufficiently scrutinised and unworkable legislation which is then "improved" by the Other Place. There may be a degree of truth in this. Ultimately, however, more effort could be made to prevent the House of Commons from passing bad laws in the first place. And the status of the Lords as a purely revising chamber prevents it from fulfilling this revising function properly - because, as is regularly demonstrated, a government intent on imposing bad and dangerous legislation usually gets its way in the end. Only a rebellion in the House of Commons can place an effective brake on the executive.

The House of Lords is unlike the US Senate, which has wide-ranging, constitutionally protected powers that are quite distinct from, and complementary to, those of the House of Representatives. Nor is it wholly a creature of the governing party. While elections would produce a more legitimate, and possibly more powerful, chamber, they would threaten to undermine one of its most valuable features, its relative independence of government. Unlike the Senate, which is constitutionally separate from the executive, the Lords plays host to an increasing number of government ministers, some very senior, and its business is government business. A fully or even mainly elected chamber, with a government majority, would in all probability become a creature of the executive.

So, what to do about it? Ideally, the entire basis of the Upper House should be rethought. It should be neither a clone of the US Senate nor a toothless repository of failed political apparatchiks. It should have real democratic legitimacy (something which can be achieved only through elections) yet it should be independent of party. Its powers of scrutiny and oversight should be enhanced. It should become more than merely the second chamber of the legislature. Its essential functions should be to restrain executive overstretch and to safeguard basic rights. And it should play a significant role in overcoming the apathy and disillusionment that imperils the long-term future of democracy.

There are, I think, two ways in which these aims could be achieved. My first suggestion involves a much smaller chamber, like the US Senate, with at most a hundred members. Given the small size of the country, it would be possible for every member of the new House to be personally rather than merely politically accountable. It would, of course, be open to the political parties to put forward their own candidates; but independent candidates with a popular base would stand a good chance of election. And whether or not the members had party affiliations, the small size of the chamber combined with a long term of at least ten years would reduce the importance of party whips, encourage independence of thought and ought to produce greater transparency.

Elected on a rotating basis - say, ten each year - the "senators" need not represent constituencies at all, but would be free to campaign on a national basis. They would thus each have a large mandate, and their personal qualities would be tested and exposed rigorously during the electoral process. There would also need to be strong safeguards against conflicts of interest. It would be safe, then, to entrust them with wide powers, including the right of absolute veto over all legislation - with, perhaps, a safety valve of appeal to popular referendum for any measure the government was unable to drive through. There would, however, be entrenched constitutional rights - concerning individual liberties - which even a referendum could not displace. That's Plan A.

Plan B is in some ways the precise opposite. In the broadband age there is no longer any necessity for the House to meet and vote in a single place. Its members could be locally chosen, locally resident and represent a broad cross-section of the community. It would be quite possible, then, for a large Second Chamber of, say, twenty thousand members to be created. The members (who might be styled "Representatives") would be part-time and rotational, so that for each bill coming before it a panel of two hundred to be selected randomly, briefed on the issues and invited to scrutinise and vote on it. And being so large, it would not need to be elected to be democratically legitimate: rather, it would be open to anyone willing to volunteer to take part in the legislative process, and the composition of the House could be adjusted to reflect, as far as possible, broader society. Beyond this requirement, places would be allocated by lot. With generous compensation for loss of time and earnings and the opportunity to play a real part in the legislative process, joining the Upper House for a period of five or ten years ought to become an attractive form of public service.

In the case of a conflict between the elected Commons and the randomly selected Upper House, the final power of veto would lie with a vote of the full Parliament, MPs and Representatives together.

The Representatives themselves might belong to political parties, but most of them probably wouldn't. This need not be a problem. For a national government to be properly elected, parties are essential - otherwise there would be chaos. But a revising chamber, which does not itself initiate legislation, would do its job more effectively if it is not constrained by party discipline. Political parties are parasitical upon democracy - they have their own interests, which do not necessarily coincide with those of the public, and are vulnerable to capture by pressure groups and corporate lobbying. If democracy is to survive in a meaningful sense, some way must be found to limit their power.

Yes, I know neither of my suggestions is remotely plausible. For one thing, they would involve a transfer of real power from the political party machines to the general public. But the form of legislature that we have, bequeathed by history and has manifestly failed to retain public confidence, and now invites derision, indifference and even hatred. Who knows, with a properly legitimate Upper House to measure itself against, the House of Commons itself might rediscover its own dignity and power. I can dream.


mogsmar5 said...

A House appointed entirely upon merit by an independent organisation - let's say,the governing bodies of Universities - would eliminate much of the often ill-informed whims of the electorate, and their elected representatives.
Unfortunately this would be extremely prone to corruption, as it is not based on (true) democracy.
Still, it would be better than the current system.

Anonymous said...

Why not just chose the member of the house of lords by a lottery - either voluntary or chosen from some government list. After all if trial by jury is so great why not the same in the HOLs.

Andrew Fish said...

I'd go with plan B. The random element makes it harder for the upper house to be subverted. In the case of contention, the combined vote may not be necessary. The government could propose a fresh random selection be made, but if, say, three successive sittings reject their proposal then the proposal just has to be ditched. There should be no way the lower house can force legislation that is manifestly opposed by a significant number of our representatives. The odds of the Commons voting for any of this, however, is remote.

Letters From A Tory said...

It still comes back to the same problem - if we have such low turnout in General Elections, why on earth would people turn out for House of Lords elections?

Andrew Fish said...

Election turnout isn't always low. It mostly floats between 70 and 80%. 2001 and 2005 were exceptional - both round the 60% mark - perhaps because people thought there wasn't much of an alternative. If the upper chamber isn't simply aligned with the Commons, then it's entirely possible people will consider there to be more point voting. Additionally, rolling the votes out as the same time as local council elections may boost the turnout for both. In the end, if you're going to use political disengagement as an argument against democracy then you might as well argue for an unelected Commons as well.