Keddie: Instead of an Elected Lords, let’s have a People’s House

Patrick Keddie, a freelance writer, writes in Liberal Conspiracy:

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.

In a People’s House, there could be quotas to ensure that there is an equal gender balance and that different ethnicities, ages and incomes are fairly represented. Rather than career politicians from a relatively narrow background, we could have a second chamber made up of manual labourers, teachers, nurses, the unemployed, the precariously employed, old, young, disabled and so forth.

In a sense this proposal favours the triumph of amateurism over bland political professionalism of ‘normal’ people over – let’s be frank – the relatively ‘abnormal’.

It is insulting and wrong to suggest that ordinary people don’t have the capacity to examine legislation that governs how their own lives are lived. If we profess to believe in democracy, then shouldn’t we entrust our fellow citizens with some power?

They could be given a month-long course to ensure they understand British and intra-national governance and if you really didn’t want to participate, you could exempt yourself. Terms could last one year or two years.

Having the chance of participating at the highest level could dispel much of the apathy of a public that feels largely disconnected from politics and the Westminster Village.

David Cameron frequently argues that the radical change his government is overseeing is to empower citizens and entrust them with taking charge of their own affairs. A People’s House could be a truly magnificent democratic legacy and the perfect embodiment of a ‘big society’!

This is hardly a new idea; election by lot, known as sortition, was used in ancient Athenian democracy as the primary means of appointing officials. But it would be a properly democratic and radical reform, giving a degree of power and sovereignty directly to the people.

Or do we want the tawdry status-quo replaced by a half-baked reform of the second chamber, leading to more professional politicians lording it over us?

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5 Responses

  1. Excellent. Couldn’t have said it better myself. How about replacing members of the Lords as they die off with randomly selected ‘peers’ who sit for a fixed term of year or perhaps two? They would be on full pay and expenses of course. That way we get real and deep reform without provoking a defensive reaction from those currently in power.

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  2. Hi Paul,

    Any meaningful reform will inevitably meet resistance from established power. A single person may give up power voluntarily, but a class of people never does.

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  3. The working class gave up power years ago. Voluntarily or not, a gradual shift that threatens no one individual’s power position is more likely to work than an attempt to shift power overnight. For that reason, among other reasons, I wouldn’t propose kicking out any existing Peers who took on the role on the understanding that it was for life. Replace them when they die off. Also, a gradual shift like that would give plenty of time for everyone to get used to the change, and to fine-tune the system or iron out any bugs before they get serious. For example, it MAY be that we decide – after a number of years – to have 50% randomly selected Peers and 50% ‘expert’ Peers, appointed by a committee of random Peers, …or it may turn out that isn’t necessary.

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  4. Tactics are a delicate thing. I tend to agree that a gradualist approach is preferable to a revolutionary approach which creates a crisis-like situation that can be exploited for underhanded power grabbing.

    I do doubt however that the electoral elite would be lulled into adopting a process in which their power is being reduced simply because it may take some time for this to happen. Popular pressure will have to be applied for sortition to become part of the political agenda. Once popular support for sortition is mobilized, wouldn’t it make more sense to press for rapid change?

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  5. Virtually every revolution I can think of has been a temporary affair, with a brief ‘honeymoon period’ where real change seems as if it is happening – or at least seems possible – followed by a return to ‘business as usual’. The names change, but the same structures of power seem to reassert themselves. Different for every country of course, but each country seems to revert to a very similar structure to the one that had developed there before the revolution. It’s tragic to see events like the ‘Arab Spring’, where people have so much hope and enthusiasm, knowing its all going to end in tears.

    All things being equal, I think most people – of whatever class or income group – would like to see a more equitable and responsive form of government, …as long as it isn’t going to disadvantage their own family of course. But people fear change. They fear that if they give a yard then a mile will be taken. They fear the unknown, and the chaos they believe may be unleashed if present structures of control are released. People in power also fear reprisals.

    As a general principle, I believe that freedom follows support. I mean I’ve noticed that in people. Freedom follows security, if you like. Life’s fearless revolutionaries generally turn out to have had rather secure backgrounds. We are not all fearless warriors, thank goodness. Somehow, we have to build before we destroy. Not because there aren’t structures that are way overdue to be destroyed, but because you can’t destroy social structures that easily. They tend to survive quite well despite the destruction of the institutions that appear to embody them, and despite even the death or removal of the personnel in those institutions.

    I’m not sure that sortition would work. Not 100%. But I think it’s worth trying out. For sure, public pressure for more effective democracy should be ‘latched’ into some kind of lasting change through enacting legislation – strike while the iron is hot, so to speak – but it’s possible to set a far-reaching change in motion without provoking an unhelpful reaction. I like the idea of a piecemeal reform (replacing Peers as they die off) of the Lords, because the Lords is not currently seen by most people as being that important, and indeed, in recent years it has become less powerful, at least in part because of its perceived lack of democratic legitimacy. Replacing Peers with randomly selected Members would – yes, perhaps sneakily – make the Lords more democratic and therefore would in time make that house more powerful.

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