Tuesday, 7 May 2013

House of Lords reform: Rule by the people, for the people (using Citizen Senators) - my article in new 'One Nation, One World' pamphlet

The following is my article in the recently published pamphlet, 'One Nation, One World', published by 'revolutionise_it'.

House of Lords reform: Rule by the people, for the people

It also appeared on the Speaker's Chair website (see below).

House of Lords reform: Rule by the people, for the people

Parliament night
Debate Rating: MEDIUM
Reforming the House of Lords
The public regard politicians with a curious mix of indifference and contempt exacerbated by recent scandals. Reform of the House of Lords is an opportunity to find an antidote to this toxic brew. Failure to reform this key institution will leave the field open to those in the media and elsewhere who seek with malice to undermine trust in politicians and the political process. The previous front-running reform plan – a fully-elected House of Lords – is not the panacea claimed by many. It may satisfy the urge for reform, but will lead to contradictions, cronyism and constitutional crisis.
Rather than shroud ever more 'place people' in ermine, we require a new system that places more 'ordinary people' in Parliament. Radical reform is required, through which half of the Upper Chamber would comprise Citizen Senators, selected by lot, as with jury selection. The remaining 50 per cent would be Expert Senators. Such a system would overcome the weaknesses of the current Lords while engendering a new era of direct public engagement with the nation's democratic life.
Given that our legislature is primarily concerned with making law, a legal analogy is appropriate. Imagine the House of Lords to be a criminal standing before a court concerned not with punishing but reforming and redeeming. The jury has been made aware of the lengthy charge sheet, all of which derives from the over-riding crime - that the Lords are not democratically elected. From this original sin flow related misdemeanors: that it has no genuine legitimacy or mandate; is unrepresentative of and remote from broader society (particularly women, lower socio-economic groups, non-established religions and minorities); is largely a bastion of political patronage; has many members drawn from the class of former elected politicians, party cronies and donors; and is so old-fashioned and anachronistic as to alienate and baffle vast numbers of voters who might otherwise be more engaged with the democratic process. In the light of such crimes, there can be only one verdict: guilty.
This being a court concerned with restorative justice, the judge must now consider a sentence. While deliberating, they consider some mitigating circumstances, including the fact that the defendant didn't willfully conspire to commit these offences. Despite the periodic attempts of concerned relatives (the Commons) to help, most witnesses told the court that the Lords had always acted like this, and no matter what they said, wouldn't change. Character witnesses attested that the Lords carried out the role of scrutinising and improving often faulty Commons legislation impeccably, due largely to the many expert members who were the best in their fields. Under cross-examination, even prosecution witnesses conceded that a lack of a democratic mandate had the welcome side-effect of ensuring that the elected Commons enjoyed a clearly delineated constitutional supremacy over the Upper Chamber.
But these can only mitigate rather than overcome the negatives when sentencing. Given the charge sheet and the immediate threat which the unreformed Lords poses to democratic life, immediate release or a suspended sentence is out of the question. What alternative sentences are open to the court? The chief contender, proposed by most reformers at the time, including the Liberal Democrats and Labour, was a fully-elected House of Lords. But this would create a chamber with its own mandate and legitimacy, leading inexorably to a reformed Lords challenging the dominance of the Commons. The supposed improvement of electing the Lords by proportional representation using a party list system would actually entrench rather than eliminate the worst aspects of political patronage and cronyism.
'Electing the Lords by proportional representation using a party list system would actually entrench the worst aspects of political cronyism'
Rule of the people, by the people
These problems stem from a misguided over-reliance on the belief that a system which selects politicians through free elections is, necessarily, the best. This received wisdom obscures different conceptions of democracy, one of which is relevant in this case. With its genesis in ancient Greece, democracy literally means ‘the power of the people’. The rallying cry coined by Abraham Lincoln - “rule of the people, by the people, for the people” – elevates the broad idea to a challenging belief and call to action. But public outrage about MPs’ and peers’ expenses has come to fuel the belief that politicians are more interested in ruling for themselves, than “for the people.” Political parties understandably seek to prove this to be false. It is Lincoln’s second phrase, “rule by the people”, which offers us the best chance of diverting public outrage into improving our political system. To put it bluntly, we should inject ‘the people’ directly into Parliament, in the form of Citizen Senators, selected at random as with jury selection.
'The rallying cry coined by Abraham Lincoln - “rule of the people, by the people, for the people” – elevates the broad idea to a challenging belief and call to action'
There has been some limited interest in the role of citizens’ juries in our democratic life, with Patricia Hewitt , Guy Lodge of the IPPR, and Matthew Taylor of the RSA, having explored their use in improving policy-formulation and public engagement. Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty wrote the book ‘The Athenian Option: Radical Reform For The House Of Lords’. Even David Cameron’s erstwhile politics tutor at Oxford, Vernon Bogdanor, haschampioned the election of councillors by lot (although he defends the House of Lords as currently configured).
Citizen Senators have excellent antecedents, as explained by Daniel Lightman, when corresponding with the author in the letters page of The Times in 2009: “In Ancient Athens, the day-to-day business of government was entrusted to the Council of Five Hundred, which was chosen annually out of the whole citizen body by lot. The only qualifications were that one had to be aged over 30 and of good standing. The Athenians were not alone in recognising the value of using the lot to select a representative group of citizens. The Talmud records that Moses used lots to choose the 70 elders of the Children of Israel and the 22,000 designated first-born. “The ancients knew,” observed the renowned classical scholar Jowett, “that election by lot was the most democratic of all modes of appointment.”
Citizen Senators
How would our system of Citizen Senators operate? The renamed Senate would be composed half of Citizen Senators, and half of Expert Senators, drawn from across the broad panoply of British life (more about this later). Citizen Senators would be selected at random as are prospective jurors at present. They would serve for one year and be paid compensation for lost earnings. Initially, they would have the right to decline, in order to avoid having to attempt to force people to serve who are wholly opposed to this. However, over time, as the reforms bedded in and citizens saw ‘ordinary’ people excelling in service, the system would become compulsory, with a mechanism for people to be excused on certain grounds (as with juries). All Citizen Senators would receive specialised training in Parliamentary procedure and politics, perhaps given by the Institute for Government or similar.
This system would share the great strength of the jury ‘selection’ process of being truly representative of ordinary people. It would also apply those other fundamental responsibilities placed on jurors: to act in the public interest and deliberate only on the evidence before them.This sense of ‘civic duty’ could be extended to a requirement for Citizen Senators to vote on grounds of conscience alone. Clearly many would have strong party-political opinions, which would influence their judgment, but they would be required to renounce party membership for their term of service, and would be sworn to act as described above. Operating beyond the clutches of the party managers, their presence in Parliament would require the Government to convince Citizen Senators through argument rather than force majeure.
A House of Lords composed entirely of Citizen Senators would not provide the highly-desirable capabilities of expert peers currently sitting in the Lords. Therefore, a committee should be established containing MPs from each House of Commons party, as well as Citizen Senators, to consider competitive applications from the various professional bodies and stakeholder groups, and agree on a list of recommended Expert Senators. This committee would also monitor their performance. Final decisions on the appointment of Expert Senators would be made by a vote of Citizen Senators.
Such a radical change to our legislature is not without risk and clearly poses significant practical and procedural difficulties, but these could be overcome by a country committed to genuine democratic renewal. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and, as shown, this system would rectify the central weaknesses of the present structures and bring huge benefits, literally transforming political life.  The new system would, over time ensure equal representation on geographic, ethic, religious, gender and sexuality criteria. It would enhance the sense of active citizenship, so memorably captured by President Kennedy with the words: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country”. It would force traditionally-elected MPs and the Government to seek the approval of a bloc of ‘real’ people. 
'The new system would ensure equal representation on geographic, ethic, religious, gender and sexuality criteria'
The system proposed would revolutionise the way we practise politics. It would place the Mother of Parliaments at the vanguard of modern democracies, admired not for its longevity and pomp, but its willingness to ensure that ‘the people’ are placed at the heart of the democratic system, rather than seen as an adjunct to an increasingly sophisticated game of focus group poker. Justice is well served through citizens being appointed at random to sit on juries. Why not have faith that democracy itself could be served just as effectively by incorporating the great principles and strengths of the jury system into parliamentary structures. It is time for Parliament to make space for rule by the people by welcoming Citizen Senators into its midst.
 About this post...
This article is part of a series of policy positions being published on Speaker's Chair from 'One Nation, One World', the first pamphlet from revolutionise.it, which is being hosted exclusively on Speaker's Chair over the next two weeks. Please join in the debate below, or submit your own views on this important topic by writing your own article in response by clicking here.
 Posted 02/05/13 by John SlingerWrite a reply

More on what I term "Citizen Senators":
  • Letter in The Independent, July 2014
  • A longer article in which I expand on these themes appeared in the revolutionise_it pamphlet "One Nation, One World" in May 2013
  • Letter in Financial Times in April 2012
  • Letter in The Times in May 2009.

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