Monday, June 27, 2011

Do we need a House of Lords?

My answer: We could easily do without a House of Lords, by beefing up the powers of Commons Select Committees and by formalising the role of expert advisory working committees in defining problems, proposing legislation and reviewing legislation.

BUT...
... if we're going to stick with a Second Chamber, for reasons of political tradition or constitutional nervousness (which are not entirely unreasonable considerations, in my view), we need to get clear what we intend the purpose of such a chamber to be; and then we need to specify how its members are selected in order to achieve that purpose.

It seems apparent that many people see the Second Chamber as providing an opportunity for wiser heads to scrutinise legislation passed by an occasionally over-enthusiastic House of Commons; a place for more deliberation and less populist rhetoric; for arguments derived from expert knowledge rather than campaigning slogans, party whipping, or clich├ęs; a process that does not ultimately veto legislation but can help make it better by calm scrutiny and cautious revisions; a constrained addition to the checks and balances of our political decision-making.

So how to select the members of such a Second Chamber?

It's clear that the unelected nature of the Lords increasingly offends our democratic sensibilities. But straightforward direct election would run the risk of reproducing the House of Commons and so failing to create an independent scrutinising body.

After all, how likely would it be for people to vote on a substantially different basis for a senator than for an MP?

An alternative idea for selecting senators is a mixed approach:
  1. Election by regional STV (Single Transferable Vote).
  2. Nomination by professional, union and other bodies, followed by votes in the Commons.
  3. Ex-officio representatives of local councils.
  4. Sortition (akin to jury duty).
  5. Co-option, requiring a majority vote.
The proportions of the Second Chamber that come from these different selection methods would need to be decided. But the key point is that there is no overlap with the constituency-based voting that determines the Commons. Methods (2), (3) and (5) involve indirect election; method (4) involves random selection; and method (1) relies on much larger geographical areas than single constituencies.

Of course there will still be objections that...
  • Anything other than 100% direct election is undemocratic.
  • This proposal embeds the power of Vested Interests, the Establishment, the status quo, the political classes, etc.
  • Instead of rewarding the wise and experienced, it favours the mediocre technocratic time-servers.
  • It will challenge the supremacy of the Commons, leading to constitutional crisis.
I think I'd dispute all of these objections. But I'm not fussy: I'd prefer to go with whatever sensible reform consensus can be built than for the anachronistic House of Lords to await reform for a further 100 years.

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