Sunday, 2 January 2011

An Elected House of Lords Will Be Bad For British Democracy

A fascinating debate by Intelegence Squared presented by the BBC.  (You'll be able to find it on youtube when this link expires.

This presents me with several thoughts.

Democracy, the nature of

I am not a democrat. I know it's a great and unobjectionable institution that almost defines the modern, moral, enlightenment way of running things. But it's not my ultimate reference. I'm a utilitarian, of course I'm a utilitarian with qualms, everyone is, but ultimately the bottom line is the greatest amount of harm. I'm not ultimately, when you get right down to the bone, a democrat, a liberal, a fan of the enlightenment or anything of the sort. I believe in all of these things, but they're not my utility function, they're a good approximation to it.

I believe in liberty because it promotes the happiness of each individual and stimulates the inventiveness of society. I believe in the enlightenment because the alternative is intolerable. I believe in a conservative (small-c) legislative system because I've never yet seen emergency legislation that was cancelled as soon as the emergency ended. I believe in radical and reforming politics because there's a lot wrong in the world that needs to be fixed.

Democracy is another thing though. The will of the people is so obvious a moral absolute that it seems sacrilege to question it. But I do. I'm not a democrat, I'm a utilitarian. The difference is that the greatest amount of happiness does not always win elections. Cannibal societies, the repression of minorities, even appalling jokes (9 in 10 people enjoy gang rape), examples can be multiplied without end where the greatest good is not what 51% would vote for. A small number suffering greatly is not automatically less important than a great number suffering little. 

There's another question about more than the will of the people though, the people can be misinformed. Nobody can be misinformed about what he wants, he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. But people can be (and are) routinely mislead about how to get what they want (as the sales figures of alternative medicine shows clearly).

So, democracy isn't an ultimate. But a democratic form of government is vital. It is important to have elections on the right issues for the right reasons.

Firstly, democracy stops tyranny. You can have the most stupid, ill-informed, immoral and bribed electorate in the world, but they wont choose to live under a tyranny that hurts them. A democratic vote at some time that simply said "STOP", and caused the collapse of the government and whatever network of oppression they had built up would be the ultimate weapon against tyranny.

Secondly, it's a question of incentive structures. Elected officials have as their aim re-election, ie, the will to please as much of their electorate as necessary. This is an approximation of utility, certainly a better one than that presented by dictatorship (avoid outright rebellion), Brazil-style bureaucracy  (carry out instructions you are given), appointment by some group to high office (bribe and pander to those who choose) etc. Now it's not a perfect approximation, this is why you need checks and balances, so that decisions that are politically popular but ethically bad (shoot the asylum seekers) dont get passed even if the elected official has an incentive to do so.


Not a lot of people believe this, but you can be good at being a legislator. Not good at being a politician, that's obvious. I mean good at drafting laws. You need a wide set of skills. A scientific frame of mind (there are no tasks that you cant do better with a scientific frame of mind), a wide knowledge of the laws of the land (how they are drafted, what the effect is, what laws are incompatible with others), a good knowledge of demographics and geography to understand the entire nation and the effects laws will have in each part.

In short you need expert knowledge. Unfortunately people dont (with a few notable exceptions) elect  experts, they elect men and women of the people, people who know nothing, but feel deeply and believe passionately. This is very unsatisfactory. This is a good thing about the House of Lords as currently instituted. There is a wide cross-bench group of really expert individuals. The President of the Royal Society, directors of charities, constitutional and political experts like Baroness Boothroyd, senior judges, all have life seats.


The problem is legitimacy, at present life peers are appointed by the sovereign, that is by the Prime Minister. By convention the Prime Minister does this under advice from such groups as the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the members of the other parties. Additionally to the life peers there are the surviving hereditary peers and the Lords Spiritual, the top 26 CoE bishops. I'm not going to waste too much time with these two groups, one will stop being a problem due to attrition soon and the second needs to be outright abolished with almost no thought.

There is a problem though, there is no de jure restriction at all on the appointment of Lords. So not only do we have no guarantee that competent people will always be selected, we have no limits whatever on political appointments. There's been a lot of hysterical talk about this Coalition, but one thing that can be legitimately worried about is the pledge to appoint party peers in line with the makeup of the House of Commons. This would be a huge influx of government Lords which would firstly dilute the cross-bench vote and secondly make it harder for the Lords to overturn bad government proposals.

This is the key problem with the House of Lords as constituted. I rather unfairly call this the problem of Lord Prescot. Lord Prescot is not an expert in anything, he has only got a valid part to play in politics as a representative of the Labour party or various trades union. And if that is what he stands for then fair play to him. But. He needs to be elected. If you're going to represent the Labour party then you're allowed to do that because and only because you've been chosen by the people, because you've been elected.

At the moment many people are in the Lords on this basis, people who are loyal members of a party there only to support that party. This is only legitimate if they are elected or if there's some other decision making process than making jobs for your friends. So I take as my first conclusion that we must eject party nominees. Not to say people affiliated with a party are ineligiblemerely that all Lords must be there on the basis of merit, not party. Hence proposals for a mixed house. The proposal is to elect some of the house and to keep the crossbenchers. Preferably putting the crossbenchers on a more firm footing to guarantee the process cant be gamed.


This makes the house a hybrid. There are some objections to this. 

If some vote or other is close and there is a significant bias towards elected members voting one way and non-elected members voting the other then it can easily be presented as the will of the people vs the will of appointed experts. With certain reservations I know which side of that debate I'm on when the chips are down. And I know the rest of the liberal world is on the other side. So I'm rather keen on seeing the chips stay up. 

There's almost no way of rationally deciding the proportion of one to the other. 

Should the forces of party and expertise be balanced? That way if there were wide consensus in one half then the vote would go that way unless there was consensus that strong in the opposite direction from the other half. This seems appealing, but will constantly raise the above question if there is a government doing things inexpertly. This could be defended, and well managed could even be successful, it's exactly the kind of inconsistent muddle the British constitution handles well. But I'm not sure if the idea is practical.

Should the party side have a majority of say 70-90%? That way the experts can suggest things, but they are overruled by political consensus or a government with a decent majority. That way if things are politically controversial and close they will have the swing votes. This is essentially an elected chamber, but with extra controversy around already controversial votes. This system would last at most one parliament.

Should the experts have a majority? This way party is the deciding factor if there's no clear view from experts. This seems sensible, but would leave the elected members frustrated and unimportant. This would leave voters very uninterested in voting for this appendage to the expert chamber. Political apathy is something that needs to be fought, and adding an extra source of it is a bad idea.

So I would suggest the only ratio of expert to party that can really be defended is 1:0 or 0:1. 

A purely expert house.

This is what I'd love. I really want such a house, one that can stand up to the government and tell them they are doing things factually wrong. Able to say that drugs policy was not based on science, to say how it was best to get people out of the poverty trap. To enlighten politics and put it on a rational footing ... a man can dream cant he? There are two issues. 

One: how do you appoint experts. This isn't an insurmountable challenge and may actually be relevant if we go for a hybrid chamber so I'll talk about this. A proposal I've heard is to have a list of industries, charities, trades union, religions, whatever else is important, (say all organisations with over 1/2 million members), and to have them appoint a representative, so you'd have the brick layer, the Hindu, the Unite member, the teacher, whatever. This seems like it's hard to corrupt (supposing you can put on a good basis who goes on the list and how the organisations select their representative). Another is to have the current system where the public nominates people who are then selected by an independent body. This is great so long as there's no corruption in the Lords Appointment Committee. Either way you need to be smart about how you do this. Careful drafting of procedures is imperative.

The second is a big problem. Democracy. I've said what I think, but the reality is it's the people who are governed. And if one chamber stands defiantly against the one that represents them it's really not clear that you will always be secure against strong opposition from the people. If people dont have confidence in their government then you get anarchy. And I'm going to have to disagree with my 15 year old self, that's not a good thing. Leave people without a government, they're fine until they start living in communities, then they start killing eachother. Yes, governments are dangerous, yes you need to slow them down and stop them becoming tyrannical. But if you do that by getting rid of them you'd also failed. 

The current house of Lords rarely opposes the commons on anything serious. Sure, it votes against legislation, it amends it, but only in ways the government doesn't care about. If the Lords seriously stands up to the Commons then they get beaten down, the Parliament Act is used as a last resort, but normally this isn't necessary. There haven't been big confrontations, the legitimacy of the House of Lords is not a popular question. I fear this could be the case if the Lords is given teeth. This is a pre-requisite of a second chamber that does anything useful. If you give it the power to really stop and interfere with manifesto pledges or things (like anti-terror laws for New Labour) that come up in a parliament and really matter but are seriously bad, then you have a real chance for politicians to blame their failures on the Lords and create a mood against it.

I regret that an expert House of Lords seem to me to be unworkable. I would love such a house, but the reality is, you'd have to risk serious danger to get it, and I cant make myself think that's wise.


I'm forced almost by process of elimination to say we need an elected chamber. We need that rather than getting rid of the Lords because the commons has too few checks on it already. You need a second house that can disagree with the Commons and stop it doing bad things. This means it needs a different makeup. In the US or other federal countries that's easy enough, you have the representatives chosen at local level and the senators at state level. In the UK this doesn't make much sense. Regional PR is about the only way you can have a different system. Of course I've said elsewhere that this means you need primary elections and that you cannot have PR in the commons. 

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