The historic prospect of reforming the House of Lords, set to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on 9 May, should be exciting – yet the public is hardly enthused.
Fairly or not, politicians are currently viewed as pretty disreputable creatures and the prospect of electing even more of them is not very appealing to many.
But there is a little-discussed radical alternative; a second chamber composed of ordinary people, appointed by lottery in a manner similar to those chosen for jury service.
I came across the idea on comedian Mark Thomas’s People’s Manifesto radio show. Thomas began a tour of the UK in 2009, asking audiences to come up with their own ideas and policies which were then debated.
A letter proposing sortition for the House of Lords by John Slinger – a Labour activist – is published in the Financial Times:
The report this week of the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill has led to a tired and polarised debate, resulting in two equally unattractive options. The conservationists wish to preserve an anachronistic, undemocratic body, which nonetheless carries out its responsibility to revise legislation with aplomb due to the expertise of its members. The reformers cling to the totem of elections to bestow on the Lords some semblance of democracy, yet offer no explanation on how to manage the inevitable constitutional clash between the newly legitimate Lords and the previously supreme Commons, or how the full range of expertise would be preserved. Instead, we require radical reform accommodating the best features of both options while mitigating their inherent deficiencies. One little-discussed idea is for a system of Citizen Senators, selected by lot as with juries.
Polly Toynbee wrote an article in the Guardian about House of Lords reform.
The comments thread had quite a few people suggesting to appoint House of Lords members by sortition, such as:
scrap the current lot of decrepit aristos, religious creme de la creme & former politicians bribed to give up their seats for ‘new blood’ and have lords lotto with the people of this nation like we do with jury service.
it can’t possibly be any worse than what we have now & who knows, with ‘token’ interest taken out of the equation they might actually get things done.
stranger things have happened.
Clive Aslet writes in the Mail Online:
[E]ven the Conservatives back a largely elected chamber. They have to; democracy is the only show in town. But leaving aside the constitutional impasse that would ensue once an elected upper house started to throw its weight around, who would really want it? Our elected politicians are not exactly revered. In fact they’re reviled. The last thing we need is more of them. We need a different type of animal in the Lords – experts, great legal brains — but not appointees of the prime minister, thank you very much. It’s a conundrum. Everyone who thinks about it comes up with a different answer.
If David Cameron really believed in the Big Society, he would advocate true democratic involvement: appointment by lot. It could work like the jury system. Ordinary people serve a term as scrutineers of parliamentary legislation. You could be sure they would bring a lot more practical experience to the table than their oppos in the Commons.
Otherwise the only way forward I can see is for the Lords to revert to their origins. There are far too many Lords for the chamber to accommodate; let them fight it out.
The reformist idea of “direct democracy” is a recurring theme among critics of the dominant modern elections-based system of government. However, “direct democratic” systems, when considered as systems for representing popular interests, suffer from much the same problems that afflict elections-based systems.
The promise of “direct democracy”
The standard description of the Athenian democracy emphasizes the role of the Assembly. According to this description having thousands of Athenians assemble 40 times a year to discuss and vote on policy decisions was the main democratic mechanism in Athens. This institute, supposedly, distributed political power widely within the group of Athenian citizens. Wikipedia puts it this way:
It [Athens] remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy, a political system in which the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right.
Marc Abrahams, the editor of the bimonthly annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize, turns in his “Improbable research” column in the Guardian to Pluchino et al. in support for sortition:
Improbable research: why random selection of MPs may be best
Mathematical research indicates that parliaments work best when some, though not all, members are chosen at random
Democracies would be better off if they chose some of their politicians at random. That’s the word, mathematically obtained, from a team of Italian physicists, economists, and political analysts.
The team includes the trio whose earlier research showed, also mathematically, that bureaucracies would be more efficient if they promoted people at random.
The scientists made a simple calculation model that mimics the way modern parliaments work, including the effects of particular political parties or coalitions. In the model, individual legislators can cast particular votes that advance either their own interests (one of which is to gain re-election), or the interests of society as a whole. Party discipline comes into play, affecting the votes of officials who got elected with help from their party.
But when some legislators are selected at random – owing no allegiance to any party – the legislature’s overall efficiency improves. That higher efficiency, the scientists explain, comes in “both the number of laws passed and the average social welfare obtained” from those new laws.
- Voting – people who get a certain number of votes go to the next stage.
- Random selection – of the people who made it to this stage, a certain number are selected at random and go to the next stage.
- Election – the people who reach this stage stand for popular elections.
If the bar in the first stage is set low enough, it may not involve mass politics – one could supposedly get to the second stage simply by getting the votes of one’s friends and acquaintances. This stage would serve to limit the sortition pool to fairly well motivated people who have some spare time on their hands. Whether this is a good filtration mechanism is unclear.
The random selection of the second stage would limit the ability of interested parties to influence the outcome of the elections by carefully selecting the candidates from the vast pool of the entire population. Taken to the extreme, there could be a single person promoted to the third stage, resulting in the elimination of the election round altogether.
Otherwise, mass political effects would rule this last stage and it may be expected that, as usual, superficialities would determine who, among the candidates, would win the elections. The winner would also be able to argue (and believe) that they deserve their position of power due to having won a competition, and such a mindset would potentially have the same corrupting influence that it does in the existing system.