Elect the Lords?

I’m going to start my Lords Reform Day post on something of a dissenting note: I don’t believe that an elected House of Lords would be the best possible second chamber for the UK. Democracy has little merit beyond its empirical tendency to produce less awful governments than most real-life alternatives. As opinion polls regularly highlight, the popular will is something that should be kept well away from the corridors of legislation.

Democracy has less dire consequences than other systems because public outrage generally prevents governments from doing too many utterly egregious things, whereas tyrants can do whatever they like under the impression that it’s beneficial. This hardly suggests a Mystical Wisdom of the People, merely that the people don’t much like Stalinist or Mugabe-ish behaviour… Nonetheless – no, not even nonetheless, because of that – it’s vitally important that the House of Lords should be reformed.

Democracy works only as long as governments find it hard to do what they want. The US is the longest-lasting large democracy precisely because its system is designed to make it almost impossible for anybody to do anything. This has led to its remarkable success in defending civilised values from the will of the American public, who are even more reactionary and barbaric than our own homegrown rabble.

Labour has assumed a similar role in British politics to the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan: it’s where all the party-political action happens and while other parties are allowed, their only role is to be a hilarious sideshow. Nobody sensible believes Labour are going to lose a General Election anytime soon.

The UK’s political system already ensures that a sizeable Commons majority gives a government far more power than would be desirable. Worse, Labour’s half-arsed reform plans have added a whole load of party apparatchiks to the Lords to rubberstamp whatever stupid legislation the Commons pass. Meanwhile, the Lords’ status as a National Joke ensures that any attempts to stymie the worst legislative excesses can be overriden under the Parliament Act without anyone kicking up much of a fuss.

This leaves us entirely reliant on judges to protect us from the whims of the administration. They’re doing a remarkably good job so far, despite jeers and brickbats from authoritarian oafs. They have not been moved by the bigoted suggestions from the rightwing press and its readers that we should intern Funny Foreigners forever without trial, and have upheld the principles and provisions of the Human Rights Act. Good work, bewigged fellows.

Still, I’d rather have a little more protection from the threat of elected tyranny. My preferred solution would be to select by random lottery a set of people of diverse levels of intelligence, education, political views and levels of political engagement, and give them full veto power over the Commons’ legislation. Oddly enough, this isn’t very far from the pre-1911 Lords: birth is pretty much a lottery…

In the absence of widespread popular support for a chamber selected by lot, the proposals from groups such as Elect The Lords seem like a least-worst option. The Lords would mostly be elected, but the system would be proportional, terms would be longer, and elections would be staggered, ensuring that the majority of Lords would generally disagree with the government on contentious issues – which is the point.

So despite my antipathy towards increasing the role of elected officials in the political system, I’ve signed up as a member of the Elect The Lords campaign – and I’d recommend you do the same.

  1. Elect the Lords state, in their FAQ,

    We believe that the second chamber can only be legitimate when the people have given their consent though elections but we do not have a common position on the method of election that should be used.

    This sort of thing is very dangerous, and verges on reform for reform’s sake. Whenever contemplating vague schemes of reform of this type always remember that:

    (a) however bad things look now, it is always possible to make things worse; and

    (b) if there is support for “reform for reform’s sake”, then the sitting government is likely to decide the final form of the reforms.

    Imagine if the Lords were to be elected by AV or some other scheme which guaranteed a Labour majority. We’d be screwed, pretty much forever.

  2. John, I didn’t even think it was possible – I read a whole post without even straining towards apoplexy… in fact, I’m pretty much in agreement on the overall principle.

    I don’t buy the lottery argument though – we’ve got quite enough ‘diversity’ in the intelligence of our representatives for my liking as it is. But I do wonder why nobody ever suggests a U.S. Senate-style chamber, with election for longer periods, with only part elected each time. I seem to remember our old chum Mill was quite sympathetic to it promoting better quality representatives (this was in one of his sensible, better moments).

    (Me-too on both of Chris’s points of caution.)

  3. Matthew said:

    I think the problem with the ‘but it could be even worse’ argument against proceding without a detailed plan is it kind of assumes the Lords remains unchanged, whereas in fact generally its power tends to decline with every decade, ditto its public support. So the do nothing option is really nothing of the sort.

  4. Chris Williams said:

    Jesse Helms

  5. Matthew — hmm, maybe, but I think you’re being very optimistic about the probable course of reform. From here it looks like we have three possible outcomes, from best to worst:
    (a) the Lords becomes a proper representative chamber, with substantial powers to revise/block legislation;
    (b) the Lords carries on as it is now (as an appointed but coincidentally roughly proportionally-representative chamber) with declining powers to revise/block legislation;
    (c) the Lords becomes a permanently Labour and nobody cares about its powers because it just rubber-stamps the rubbish emanating from below.

    (a) is what we have, (b) is what we probably want, but (c) is what we’ll get if there is a large push for some kind of reform without thought to its form consequences.

  6. d’oh. Exchanged (a) and (b) in the last sentence.

  7. Matthew said:

    Well I don’t know how optimistic I’m being about reform, but it seems to me that there was an urgent need for reform, any reform, with the chamber we had pre-1999.

    This was for two reasons.

    First, on principle. The idea of a heditary legislature is obscene, and indeed one that was considered ridiculous and embarassing in 1910, let alone 1999. I think there is a fair case to say that no method that was likely to replace it for choosing a legislature could be as bad.

    Second, in practice. The principle was so ridiculous no democrat could ever take the Lord’s side. That’s why I think governments tended not to want to reform it, if it ever blocked or revised anything you could just point out that the man doing it was only allowed to do it becuase his great-great-great-etc grandfather owned a lot of land in Buckinghamshire, and everyone (correctly) felt there was no option but to support the government.

    Now they’ve by-and-large gone perhaps its true that the urgency for reform has gone, though no-one finds the chamber as it is currently constituted very impressive. One other point is that I don’t believe an elected chamber would have a permanent Labour majority – Labour in the last few years have lost most elections they’ve contested, after all.

  8. One other point is that I don’t believe an elected chamber would have a permanent Labour majority…

    Maybe. It depends how much attention the rest of us are paying when they construct the electoral system for the thing….

    Labour in the last few years have lost most elections they’ve contested, after all.

    — but they’ve won all the ones that matter, haven’t they?

  9. nikolai said:

    I think an appointed House of Lords is useful. Most politicians in the Commons don’t bother to read the Bills which they vote into law, and most of them are also reluctant to act against their party. The Lords does have people with genuine expertise who are not accountable to political parties and have helped revise laws and hence stopped stupid mistakes being made in legislation. I’ve no problem with a revising house, subordinant to the Commons, made up of people with real skill and talent who can improve legislation. Though this is different from the checks-and-balances mandate that John B is proposing, if it useful, and would be lost in an elected house or one chosen by lot.

    Obviously, in this context though, letting the PM appoint whoever he wants to the Lords isn’t the best selection device. So we need another one. Perhaps MPs could be selected by lot to appoint someone when a place comes up – like the way in which Private Members Bills are handed out.

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  11. Shuggy said:

    I find your honesty refreshing; most people genuflect before the mystical will of the British Volk as if it’s existence was an unchallengable fact.

    However, I do support the election of the Lords, or at least some elected members. You mention, rightly, how the American constitution limits the pretensions of elected politicians with its separation of powers. But a key ingredient of this is mutual independence of tenure – and having an elected second chamber would give us this. At present, the good work the Lords has been doing over the last few years in restraining the executive is limited because of the continual recourse by the government to the legislative superiority of the Commons as the elected chamber.

  12. Jim B said:

    I can’t say that Government by Lottery appeals to me any more than Government by Ancestry, or even Government by Election, but clearly Lords reform is needed if only to stop foreigners like myself taking the piss out of it.

    I mean, does anyone seriously think it’s a good idea to address members of the government as “My Lord” here in the 21st century? Well, obviously there are plenty, but that just mystifies me.

    I would take issue with your assertion, however, that “Nobody sensible believes Labour are going to lose a General Election anytime soon.”

    Far be it for me to self-apply the epithet “sensible”, but I’d be willing to bet on Labour suffering a massive defeat at the next general election. It’s my view that Britain will have entered a period of major economic readjustment (there’s a euphemism if ever I heard one) not long before the next election and that the opposition parties will claim (falsely) that they can do something about it.

  13. Matthew said:

    I think any real reform of the Lords would need to be accompanied by reform of the Commons, to give that body some power independent of the Administration. The simplest way to do this would be to cut the number of MPs to about 200 (Congress gets by with 435 for a population five times larger) and give them lots of researchers/admin backup.

  14. Nah, that’s not enough — you have to weaken the whipping system too. Without a larger net incentive to rebel, a smaller Commons will be an even more loyal tool of the executive than the current one. Unfortunately weakening the whips is almost impossible in when majorities are so large that rebellions are rarely successful. This is one of the strongest arguments for a proportional electoral system: if the Commons were perpetually vulnerable to deadlock, individual MPs’ prejudices would have to be taken much more seriously by the ruling party. If we were lucky, the net effect might be constructive.

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  16. Katie Bartleby said:

    You know, Demos put out a report in 1998 calling for the replacement of the House of Lords with a citizens’ assembley chosen through sortition and rotating on a regular basis. Like a really big jury. But then, Demos is a bit odd. They have an in-kind sponsorship deal with IKEA in exchange for office furniture and have bean bags and stressballs all over the office. They also have an annual sports day at an ‘organic pub’ and have rebranded ‘usual suspects’ active citizens as ‘hoodie two-shoes.’ Not to be taken seriously, IMO.

  17. John B said:

    Sounds awesome: are they recruiting?

  18. Katie Bartleby said:

    Oi! Hands off, I get first dibs.