Lords reform must address both chambers; Clegg's proposals are a dead-end

The British are now being presented with a proposal to replace the Lords with a wholly, or partially elected Senate.... Here we go again is the general feeling. Rightly. The upper chamber cannot undergo democratic reform without addressing its relationship with the Commons
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
19 May 2011

The abject way in which Nick Clegg has proposed to replace the Lords with a wholly elected Senate, or maybe an 80 per cent elected one, suggests that it will die a slow death at the hands of the committee of the long grass.

The publishers of Iain McLean’s What's Wrong with the British Constitution? are delighted that his ideas seem to have been proposed. Alas, even this is unlikely to drive them through. Especially when opposed by other so-called 'constitutional experts' inside the catacomb like the once would-be radical Peter 'Lord' Hennessy whose grotesque meandering opposition to reform floated up in yesterday's Telegraph.

The Lords is one half of parliament. It therefore can’t be replaced or reformed in a democratic fashion without addressing the whole of parliament and the relationship between the two halves.

It is of course the Commons, where even MPs with respectable salaries can have second jobs, that most needs reform. Were it to become an effective legislature passing Bills in language that even MPs themselves could understand, then a second chamber could indeed be composed on different principles.

I have long favoured an element of sortition, meaning having members selected like a jury, in a manner that ensures they are also a representative sample. It's something the Athenians achieved with their twelve tribes (excluding women and slaves) and we could do the same. I’m not suggesting having them as legislators or law-makers; their role would be to scrutinise and hold to account.

I wrote a pamphlet about the idea and then a book The Athenian Option, with Peter Carty. It’s published in the Imprint Academic series on sortition, which is now growing a significant scholarly literature.

I’m delighted to see that Conservative Home are now considering this approach in a piece by Andrew Lilico. If Tim Montgomerie puts as  much into it as he did into stopping AV it might even happen...

When it came out as a book we added a chapter on Jack Straw’s White Paper, which was published when Gordon Brown was PM. It was the culmination of a decade of New Labour backsliding on introducing democracy into the centre of British government. I’ll quote from it here, because so little has changed.

Back in 2002, after Robin Cook was fired from being Foreign Secretary but before he resigned from the Blair government to oppose the decision to invade Iraq, he was Leader of the House. His number one ambition was Lords reform. He recounts in his autobiography, Point of Departure, how having won a commitment for the creation of a joint committee and a free vote of MPs he went into a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor. Cook writes (p 148):

"We all know, although never say, that the dividing line in the room is between those who see the new plan as a way of making progress and those who see it as a way of halting progress." 

This is an apt warning! It should be pinned above all proposals for constitutional reform in Westminster and Whitehall.

In our conclusion on the White Paper, Carty and I write:

Ralph Miliband, father of the famous brothers now in the Cabinet, once wrote that “parliamentarism” in Britain “simultaneously enshrines the principle of popular inclusion and that of popular exclusion”. The British tradition offers a democratic façade behind which there is an excluding reality that keeps voters at arms length. This tradition is healthy and alive in the White Paper. It appears to offer inclusion through the elemental procedure of the popular vote but its mechanics, from its consideration of voting systems, to the time it foresees reform taking, to its criteria for the appointed members, are dedicated to reproducing the machinery of exclusion that marks the British way of government. We see no way forward here for reformers or democrats, whether from the left or right. The White Paper has been authored on the other side of Robin Cook’s dividing line. It is designed to put as firm a break on progress as can possibly be applied, in the circumstances.

Those who want to ‘carry on and hope for the best’ will do so. But they will find themselves participating in a revival of an old political music hall that may be suggestive but is hardly priapic. Our advice to reformers, especially those who look to action on electing the Lords without any further debate about its role and powers, is that going down a blind alley with your eyes open will not stop it from being a cul de sac.


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