Let The People Wear Ermine If We Are to Abolish the House of Lords

David Cameron will soon appoint up to fifty new Conservative peers to decrease the anti-Conservative majority in the House of Lords. He may sweeten the pill by ensuring that a majority, or large proportion of them are women. But in all likelihood his nominees will be party hacks, ex-ministers, donors. The new intake will ensure that membership of the ermine-clad benches rises to 830, confirming it as the second largest legislative body in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress.

Calls for reform of the Lords are as inevitable and predictable in every parliament as hearing the first cuckoo in spring. And many people will see this raft of appointments as further evidence that it is time for reform and will call for an elected second chamber. It is an understandable democratic reaction. But misguided.

Why? Simply, an elected second chamber would not work. The United Kingdom is a unitary, not federal, state: power emanates from the centre. Elected second chambers usually have an alternative mandate: the US Senate, which elects two representatives per state, is designed to protect small states such as Arkansas and New Hampshire from populous states such as New York and California. The large population of England relative to other parts of the UK means a construct similar to the US is not viable.

Change will only be implemented when it is given an irresistible justification. The election argument is not rationale enoughSo the question that reformers have not been able to answer is, how can two chambers work effectively together when they both claim potentially opposing democratic mandates? If we elect a second chamber by proportional representation, could it then not claim to have a better democratic mandate than the Commons? And if that is the case, why not just abolish the second chamber and elect the Commons by PR?

At general elections we elect both a legislature and a executive. The executive rests on its ability to pass legislation - there is no separation of power. Reform which merely substitutes election in place of appointment without a delineation of the Lords’ functions and with no solution for resolving difficulties is a recipe for paralysis. Change will only be implemented when it is given an irresistible justification. The election argument is not rationale enough.

However, I am a reformer. There is a more democratic and more compelling potential reform, and potentially practicable: random selection by lot.

A second chamber, which consisted of members who had been chosen randomly from the general public, would radically change our democracy. The chamber would be brought down to a reasonable number. Care could be given to ensure each entity of the UK is represented. Young members would mix with old. If terms were short, it would not be cumbersome for those selected. In fact, the experience would be beneficial. Westminster is already staffed by clerks to aid legislation, who could be further supported by teams of policy experts. The Commons would maintain its primacy as the only elected body but one overseen in between elections by the public.

The ‘Lords’ would be confirmed as a body whose function is not to propose legislation but to provide caution and inquiry on matters neglected by elected representatives. It would keep that element of expertise which sometimes makes the current body worth listening to. What could be better than a teacher talking about education or a policeman about crime? If given powers to scrutinise both legislation and executive it would place politicians right next to the public, not another layer of party politicians.

If Lords reform is not to be constantly doomed, reformers must think imaginativelyOur politicians often get an bad rap. Too often we blame them for not solving a problem as if they could do so by pulling a lever. Our citizen representatives might confirm the difficult compromises of government. Politicians are often derided as an out of touch elite despite social media, constituency surgeries and TV programmes like Question Time bringing them closer to the public than ever before. In the last parliament each of the main party leaders grappled with the issue: David Cameron held regular ‘Cameron Direct’ meetings, Nick Clegg hosted a weekly LBC show, Miliband proposed a People’s Question Time. These are informal mechanisms. They are not wired into the system.

Bicameralism originally arose to protect a polity’s different 'interests', usually people and aristocracy. These days it has morphed into a stabilising political force, perhaps especially important in system like Britain's. If Lords reform is not to be constantly doomed, reformers must think imaginatively. Studies have shown that systems that contain a degree of randomness are more efficient.

Untainted by grubby politics or political donations, a Citizens’ House would command public confidence from which a responsive Commons would benefit. It is fundamentally democratic and open. More so than an elected chamber, which would be controlled by party lists, political donations and whips. Allotment would overwhelmingly improve our political discourse. Functioning democracies depend on the proximity of an elite to their populace.

A better juxtaposition would mean that ordinary people can change the language of politics. You do not have to go back to Aristotle to see the democratic merits of selection by lot: we already do it with juries. If we are willing to put our legal system in the hands of ordinary people, why not our politics?

Hell. If it helps, I’d let them wear ermine. 

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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