Democracy is so intrinsic to our values, that a passionate argument for its augmentation is often readily accepted and only seen as a natural evolution. What is democracy to us? It is two things, both a mechanism and an ideology. A means to achieve, and an element of our desired ends. While linked, we must be cautious and treat applied democratic functions separately to our democrat ideology.
There are matters in which applied democracy is not appropriate. Do we want to all have a vote whether each individual has passed their driving test? Should we, like democratic utopia Switzerland, be able to deprive citizenship from a particular refugee family because they are simply Muslim?
We have a fundamental belief that democracy is supreme. Despite this, we collectively choose where democracy should be applied as functions in our society. Where it is not are often in the form of standards — human rights, food safety and education to name a few.
By limiting applied democracy, we recognise that our ends are not just democratic. Other ingredients prevent discrimination, protects the rights of those in disadvantaged positions whether that be geographical, financial or educational. These ingredients together form our ends — freedom.
When talking about reforms for the upper house, the question is what is its role in our state? Expert Scrutiny; a standard. This is the role of second chambers for the vast majority of non-federated countries, the few beyond that are rubber stamps. Whether we should apply democracy to this institution is a question of whether it enhances its function of scrutiny, which is a component of our freedom.
Experts form in society due to an asymmetric distribution of information. We have doctors to help us come to a decision on our healthcare, but ultimately it is our decision for treatment. The Commons democracy is already supreme. The Lords current membership include loose screws, but this is a problem of who is appointed, not how. Individuals who have an accepted expertise in a field can hold government to account and who our representatives must listen to. It can do so in a protected, recorded, and public forum, providing technical expertise to analyse legislation, and concerns of which are made public. It can communicate in a way that is difficult to ignore. These scrutineers are technocrats. On government bills, the Lords provide the only expert checks and balances against the other British technocracy with (as a rational agent) its own agenda — the Civil Service.
The reforms concentrate on two aspects. Firstly, turning it into a smaller, professional chamber, and secondly into a partially or fully directly elected house. Both are disastrous.
A small, professional chamber is not suited for a body of experts. Given such chamber, it would mean that for each member would be expected to take on more work. This takes them away from dealing in their area of expertise. Furthermore, the increased commitment would lead them further estrange from their field outside this role. Over time they become generalists having worked on wide range of issues. It is not rational to hire a specialist doing a generalists job over a better all-round generalist. This is where it will lead eventually, because of structure. It becomes the Commons.
A better approach is to leave the chamber a large part-time pool of consultants. Business should move away from Committee of the Whole House — where the majority of the work is done — to Select Committees which are both more manageable and increases legitimacy by preventing Lords from intervening in areas that they do not have recognised expertise in.
On the second point of accountability, direct elections would dramatically change the composition of the house. Under the proposed proportional representation, choices would be presented in form of party lists. By elimination, this would leave the Crossbench to an allocation of the house left to appointments.
Even more worrying is that elections results would be more relevant to a party’s mandate because the votes are tied to the party itself rather than by proxy of individual candidates who represent a party. The demographics of the Lords would shift from relative independence from party political control, to a demographic by virtue of party.
This transforms the Lords into a copy of the Commons, eliminating the independent technocracy which in turn limits its ability to provide insights that would have not already been raised in the Commons. In such scenario, how could the Commons justify remaining supreme?
Moreover, elections of the upper house would be another mechanism for the public to vent displeasure at government. A simplistic vote for party will be based on the performance in the Commons. This is already largely true in local government, as we saw the national agenda batter the Liberal Democrats last year.
Effective scrutineers need to fully exercise their abilities that had earned them this position. The reforms tie them to the popularity contest. Even the whip is a hindrance. Opinions formed for party before country is a grave betrayal of their field of expertise, and to those including public who rely upon their rational.
Instead, for the Lords to become more effective in scrutiny, it would benefit from the removal of whip from the Lords, and make all future appointments on the Crossbench asides from a small number of government working peers to introduce bills and maintain usual channels. The only aspect of the reform to keep is a single fixed-term appointments.
Crossbench appointments could be made on advice of the chartered bodies and the learned societies and other community organisations.
This provides an expert oversight mechanism more capable than parties. Disqualification would be a recall mechanism. To add accountability to this process, the Lords Appointment Commission could be replaced by, or work along side a special appointment jury formed of random citizens.
There are groups that are under-represented in Westminster: women, LGBT, and ethnic communities, religions and youth. Solving these artificially in the Commons is contrary its function to provide representation for a strict geographical constituency only. Any skewed selection of candidates to represent you based on circumstances beyond your local area is not fair. In the Lords candidates have a national mandate, and such specific representation appropriate. The Crown Colonies and Oversea Territories should also get seats, as they have a genuine interest in defence and foreign policy but have no legislative voice.
There are always need for sanity checks. This is the purpose of the Lords — to ensure expert advice is taken seriously and that ordinary people aren’t taken for a ride by politics in the Commons. This romantic adventure under the intoxication of democratic ideals is a unprecedented revolution, which could take another hundred years to fix. As Fabians, this is not only too large a single step, but we must grasp the practicalities of what world we would step into.
This article was first published in the Young Fabians print journal Anticipations (Volume 15, Issue 2 — Spring 2012)