Sortition won't lie down: a blueprint for a truly representative House of Lords

The replacement of Britain's House of Lords is once more being debated. Why not have it selected by lot rather than elected? The idea is always scorned but spontaneously bounces back.
Max Atkinson
15 July 2011

[Anthony Barnett: Back in the early 1990s I wrote a paper for Charter 88 suggesting that if the role of a reformed second chamber was to hold the Commons to account, then it could be selected by lot. Peter Carty had come to same view and together we wrote a Demos paper in 1998 called 'The Athenian Option'. Despite a splash of coverage in the Times, whose editor at the time, Peter Stothard, was a classicist (he wrote a leader to mark its publication titled "It Could be Lord You"), the idea was traduced and scorned when it was not ignored. Demos lost all its copies and was unable to reprint it when it put its publications on line. In the meantime Peter and I had given evidence to a Royal Commission on the Lords which Blair had set up. He put Lord Wakeham in charge to ensure that serious reform was kicked into the long grass. Meanwhile, out in the depths of Exeter Imprint Academic and its brilliant publisher Keith Sutherland were planning a series of books on sortition. This is the technical term for the use of random selection in government. They reprinted The Athenian Option with an account of its fate, our evidence before the Wakeham Commission and an analysis of Jack Straw's White Paper on Lords reform which provided the basis for Clegg's latest offering. There was a striking moment for me in going to give evidence to the Royal Commission, I found myself in a lift with 'Lord' Douglas Hurd who was one of its luminaries. He commented on how extraordinary it was that when the Commission had gone round the country to hear from the public at every occasion someone had stood up and suggested that the Lords be selected like a jury from members of the public. It was clear that he regarded the notion as bizarre, evidence that the public was slightly mad and could not be trusted. The idea was clearly going to go nowhere - in his view! But it won't lie down. Recently I got a tweet from Alan Finlayson:

@maxatkinson Your daughter-in-law isn't the only one advocating 'sortition' for the Lords. See by @AnthonyBarnett

It had bounced back on Max Atkinson's blog. And, challenged by David Steele who wants to keep things as they are, Helena Kennedy embraced the idea as well in the Guardian:

You know that by being particularly bloody-minded, the House of Lords can stymie legislation. We could have a deliberative poll where you bring together 500 people, selected carefully from the voting register, who represent the demographics of Britain, and then have them hear evidence.

At some point, a country is going to appoint part of its legislature by lot and it will prove popular and effective. Perhaps that country will be England, if it isn't going to be Britain. I say popular because it is so natural and obvious to those of us who are not part of the political class. So here is Max Atkinson reporting on his daughter-in-law's idea.] 

Listening to me banging on about how to bring real reform to the Lords is something my unfortunate family and friends have been forced to put up with for years.

The most interesting solution so far has come from one of my daughters-in-law. And, with the spectacle of yet more cronies being parachuted on to the red leather benches, it seems as good a time as any to share Anne's proposals with a wider audience.

Membership that's fair and representative

The principle of public service is at the heart of her system for allocating seats in the House of Lords – which would be as representative of the general population as it's possible to imagine and has the following advantages over all the other proposals I've ever heard mooted:

  • Equal numbers of male and female members would be assured.
  • The age distribution would be an accurate representation of that in the population as a whole, thereby eliminating the current bias in favour of the elderly.
  • Representation of different ethnic groups would reflect the proportion of them in the general population, unlike at present.
  • The occupational and socio-economic background of members would also reflect that in the population at large.
  • Members would hold their seats for a fixed term, and not for the rest of their lives.
  • Political motivation to obtain a peerage would be eliminated.

Too good to be true?

Er, no. We already have a well-proven, practical and efficient system that's been achieving all these benefits simultaneously – and has been doing so for a very long time.

Until now, however, it's only been used to select members of the public for jury service.

So why not also use it for selecting members of the public for service in the House of Lords? After all, if juries are capable of playing such an important part in applying the laws of the land, the same people would presumably also be just as capable of revising new laws.

The next step?

A few important modifications to the way jury members are recruited would obviously have to be introduced – e.g. geographical representation, number of members, length of service, how frequently should new members be appointed, remuneration, training, etc.

But it's surely not beyond the wit of government to appoint a Royal Commission, chaired perhaps by a judge or constitutional lawyer, and including at least one psephologist and the CEO of IpsosMORI (and/or other polling companies who know about sampling) to sort out the details and devise a system that would work.

I'd be more than willing to serve on it myself. Unfortunately, however, I don't think it will ever happen.

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