Sunday, March 19, 2006

An idea for reforming the House of Lords

The new cash for peerages scandal highlights the problem with the lack of a long term solution to the organisation of the House of Lords. So long as the House of Lords remains an appointed body it will remain a means for patronage. Making the funding of political parties more transparent is clearly a good idea but this will not remove the suspicion surrounding a system where presence on a house of parliament can be used to return a favour.

Designing a new House of Lords faces the fundamental problem of balancing several conflicting priorities:

First, there is a need for democratic legitimacy. Without a link to public opinion the House of Lords will increasingly lack the authority to challenge the Commons and fulfill its function as a second house. This authority is necessary for the Lords to be able to properly defend civil liberties and other minority issues. Appointment is simply not close enough to the electorate and leaves the Lords as a subsidiary of the Commons dependent directly upon Commons' structures.

Second, it is important that the balance of opinion in the Lords not track the currents of public opinion reflected in the Commons too quickly. If the Lords is simply a duplicate of the House of Commons with a slightly different electoral cycle then it is likely to offer little in terms of improved governance. Defending the interests of a minority is best done in a similar manner to that of the US Senate, by having the balance of power change slowly; this allows the Lords to slow radical programmes from incoming governments who may allow transient overreactions to endanger liberty. Clearly appointment is little help here as it acts to reflect the balance in the Commons.

Finally, the Lords should be as free from the pressures of reelection as possible so that they can act as a check to interest politics and the distortion of the electoral cycle. The system in the US Senate appears to be failing in this regard. The debates over issues such as drilling in Alaska demonstrate a failure of the deliberative body as it descends into farcical interest politics.

Another concern, although subsidiary, is that there needs to be a mechanism for an orderly transition to a new system which does not involve bringing collosal tranches of new members at once.

The best system, in my view, would be to combine the life time appointments of the current House of Lords with an entirely elected system. Elections could be held in line with each general election and every Lord who died since the last general election could be replaced. The exact system for electing them would need to be designed in detail but should be a direct vote. The number of Lords who we can expect to replace each election can be calculated from the mortality rates for those in the Lords' age bracket multiplied by the number of Lords. The final figure would probably be around 72 initially (using the 65-74 age band as the average age of a Lord is 68) but would probably fall as the Lords become younger once no longer appointed in return for, and after, a life of service to country or party.

Judging by the criteria above this seems to be a suitable design. As directly elected representatives they will possess the legitimacy needed to challenge the Commons when required. Movement in the house of around 10% per election is sufficiently glacial to act as a bar to transient majorities. As the Lords would not need to be reelected they would not suffer the interest pressure which appears to have found its way into the Senate. This system even suggests a mechanism for transition by removing no current peers but instead treating the current balance as the starting point from which replacement elections are held.

The problem seen in the Supreme Court with life appointments, that each appointment has far too much at stake is negated by the House of Lords being a body of hundreds. Could a system of lifetime election be the way forward?


The A. said...

Lords are not really linked to a territorial constituency, are they? Do you see a list system then?

And who would fund their campaigns ;-)

Dave Cole said...

Few problems with your system.

Firstly, two specific questions:
What voting system would you use?
What would you do about the Law Lords?

Given that there would be campaigns for these elections, people not associated with parties would be kept out. Well done, you've just scrapped the X-benchers. And the bishops.

I think it's good to have religious leaders - including secularists - debating on issues of morality in a more sedate manner than the Commons. I'd like to see all the major religions represented in Parliament as a matter of course. I don't think that religious organisations are going to form links with particular political parties.

The point extends to other areas. How would Ralf Dahrendorf come to the Lords under your system? Dahrendorf, a former Director of LSE, is a noted academic but I can see the Sun being completely objective and impartial if a party announced that it wanted to have an academic of considerable standing join the Lords who was, btw, a member of the German goverment.

Similarly, Rees-Mogg has no party affiliation. I think he's useful in the Lords; should he have to join a party to join the Lords, or do you think there is going to be a substantial 'Vote Geek' campaign?

Life election. Wtf? 'Few die and none resign', as the saying goes. Learn your letters, Matt. Smethwick ring any bells? Would it be good to have a national poll that could allow Nick Griffin into the Lords in perpetuity? Beyond the question about voting, how would people be able to cashier there elected representatives? A constituency can chuck someone out every five years. What would be the equivalent system of cashiering with life election?

Sorry, but your proposals do not work.


Matthew Sinclair said...

I'm not sure on the voting system. That isn't the sort of thing I think about.

I see no real end to involving the bishops. Why exactly do religious leaders possess such a superb capacity for reason on moral issues?

That you don't like the candidates the system would produce is an argument against democracy. Rees-Mogg will find another way to get his views across.

Enough would die. By my calculations (shown abouve) about 70 per election. Plenty to play with.

The whole point is that there is no cashiering; that allows for the continuing of the role the lords play now as above interest politics. Nick Griffin isn't elected MP I see no reason to worry that he would be elected Lord. If that did happen then he would be vastly outnumbered and have the support of voters (welcome to democracy).

Dave Cole said...

You may not think about the voting system, but it dramatically affects the end result. The idea might be nice enough, but it needs to be thought out and you need to determine this crucial part of the entry process.

Religious leaders posess no more capacity than anyone else to deal with moral issues. However, they represent the morality of lots of people and spend a lot of time debating moral issues. They have expertise in the area.

Don't bother saying that people aren't Christian anymore; Bagehot acknowledged as much but said that the laws and morality of England are heavily influenced, for good or for ill, by Judaeo-Christian morality. Useful, I think, to have experts in that around. Moreover, it is a way of binding groups that have felt discriminated against - Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, whatever - into the system.

Saying that it wouldn't produce the candidates I like is, I'm afraid, moronic. I don't like Rees-Mogg, but he's useful to have around and represents a section of the populace. If the Lords is to be there as a chamber for expertise and revision, these people are useful to have around. It is not enough to say that they'd find other ways to communicate their points of view; it is more effective to actually allow them to question and amend. Besides, politicians, it would seem, do not take all that much notice of what the newspapers say. Viz: Butler.

I might add that as you would effectively have to have a party to run for these elections, which apparently would be national, you would hand power over to the party machines to select the membership of the reformed Lords. You would hand power over to the Whips and "create a seraglio of eunuchs".

'The whole point is that there is no cashiering'. How can you say that and then accuse me of being undemocratic? The point of democracy is not just election but removal. To elect someone on the basis of national opinion at a given time - to take the nation's pulse when it may just have run up a flight of stairs - and leave those people there in perpetuity is not a great idea. Again, remember the Smethwick by-election. To give someone tenure for life based on one election is little better, particularly given that you are strengthening the hand of the parties in the selection of Lords, than the current system.

Lords above interest politics? You've forced them to attach themselves to parties (or given control to party machines outright). How would you have X-benchers in your system?

I can accept that Nick Griffin might at some point have a democratic mandate to sit in Parliament. I don't think that we should facilitate that. The reason to worry about him being elected Lord under your system is that he would be running in a single constituency and only needs to find enough fascists across the whole country.

Finally, what are you going to do about the judicial functions of the Lords? What will you do about Law Lords?

Matthew Sinclair said...

I don't think Bishops represent many people at all. Active attendance at CoE services? Equally, why can they understand the laws based on a Judeo-Christian inheritance better than a lawyer, or me? Because they're more Christian? You're letting your own religion cloud your judgement here.

Your Rees-Mogg point sounds like a hack crying out at horror that democracy doesn't produce a system run by hacks. Thank God.

We get unpleasant Lords now (witness Black). We get unpleasant MPs (Galloway). This isn't a problem in a house of hundreds.

I don't have a problem with the party system. I do think it is important to have a house not vulnerable to distortions like the electoral cycle. For that reason the small power of the Lords seems best left to the unaccountable.

Dave Cole said...

I'm not letting my religion cloud my judgement. I said religions - note the plural. One would hope that the creation of laws would have some reference to morality. The Judaeo-Christian point stands, mostly because you haven't said anything against it. Bagehot. Again. How sad that I'm citing that bastard. According to, 60% of the Lords' time is spent on legislating, not interpreting laws, which is done by the law lords. See below.

One last question, and please answer it this time. What are you going to do about the Law Lords? Given that the Lords is the final court of appeal, it's reasonable to ask what you're intending.

The Rees-Mogg point is that you have some people who are useful to have around deliberation but aren't going to be elected. Just calling me a hack is infantile and beneath you.

I don't have a problem with the party system either; parties are necessary for democracy, or at least for the form of democracy we maintain. I do have a problem with turning over the composition of the Lords to the parties. You seem to praise the independence of the Lords and then hand it over to the Whips. Parties are necessary, but they are currently over-strong. Setting up that system in the Lords would be a bad idea.

Let me make it easy for you. Do you deny that your proposal will mean that prospective Lords will need a party ticket?

Just because the Lords has less power than the Commons doesn't mean it doesn't have any power. Moreover, that power is significant. It can delay a legislative programme indefinitely. It has a European scrutiny committee, amongst others. It is the final court of appeal. Powerful, methinks.

And you want to make it unaccountable.


Matthew Sinclair said...

This is getting hysterical. The Lords are currently unaccountable. The commons has lots of accountability and keeping some power unaccountable prevents a majority too easily having its way at the expense of a minority.

I did respond to your Judeo-Christian point. If it is a tradition that our laws and society are based upon then it is a part of a society we have all grown up in. The more socially relevant this is the less exclusive to religious experts it must be. I have a connection to the Judeo-Christian tradition as much as a Bishop does. He has more of a connection to modern Christianity but that is entirely different and isn't shared by many.

Have the legal community appoint some Law Lords in addition to my scheme (similar to how judges are appointed). I don't think its worth building a system around the small number of Lords who are needed by the legal profession.

How are the parties too powerful?
How would their influence be stronger over someone they helped elect than someone they appointed?

On William Rees-Mogg. The point I was making was simple. I don't think we should be creating a system to enable a technocratic elite who can't get elected. Their status as "experts" is usually highly suspect. Finding one who I like changes nothing.

Anonymous said...

Bah! Experts are for listening to -and the better they are they more carefully we should listen - but experts are not for taking political decisions. Let the Lords Experts speak, not vote.

What we need is a House of Lords that is independent, capable of being bloody-minded when necessary, not entirely predictable and not likely to get above itself. Look at page on the House of Lords for an idea which might even be fun.