Wednesday, August 10, 2005

94 years of equivocation and "the Eastenders factor"

Ninety-four years ago today, the 1911 Parliament Act was passed, stating the following:

"And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it is at present exists a second chamber constructed on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot immediately be brought into operation"
I'd imagine that most people would consider "not immediately" to mean "relatively soon" - not "the best part of a century". So today is Lords Reform Day, and I have agreed to post about it to raise awareness of the fact that we're still working with a half-arsed parliamentary system. (Other bloggers' views are being collated here.)

The most important fact to consider is simply that the House of Commons does not have either the time or the manpower sufficiently to debate and scrutinise every piece of legislation which passes through its doors - especially under the current, legislation-happy government.

This is why we have Select Committees. This is why All Party groups are formed. This is why we now have Westminster Hall debates, running parallel to those in the main chamber. This is also part of the reason for the party system, the whips, even for the Cabinet and post of Prime Minister. All of these exist, at the most basic level, to enable the proper scrutiny, debate and prioritisation of bills and their various amendments.

But the Commons STILL hasn't got the time or the manpower to analyse everything which affects this country - European Union legislation being the prime example. You don't have to be a eurosceptic to agree that directives issued in Brussels should be properly examined before being put into force, or to see that an body not directly involved in drawing up the legislation is more likely to be able to take a more objective view of the implications.

The Commons currently has no time or real framework to discuss EU legislation. Hell, it barely has time to read its own legislation or prepare properly for its own debates - witness the much-lauded performance of the recently-departed Robin Cook in the Scott Report debates in 1996. He was given just two hours to read and digest 2,000 pages of dense material and prepare his argument attacking the Major government. He succeeded, but such fortitude and intellect is rare amongst MPs.

The Lords, however, in part due to its larger membership (even if this has been drastically reduced since January 1999, when there were 1,165 active members), in part thanks to the lack of pressure from constituency work, finds far more time to analyse what the EU is up to - spotting and making public potential problems BEFORE they become official. Even if no one ever pays any attention...

The House of Lords European Communities Select Committee, set up in 1974 on the advice of the Maybray-King committee, is just one example of the vital yet largely unknown work that the upper House conducts on a daily basis. It is not all old men in grey suits droning on amidst red leather luxury, nor is the Lords' sole function to hold up legislation.

Yet the holding up of legislation is also absolutely vital to our democracy. Especially in times of a government with a large Commons majority, bad legislation (ID cards, detention without trial etc. etc. etc.) could otherwise be sped through with even more ease.

It was with the 1832 Great Reform Act, bringing in popular elections (if not universal suffrage) and disciplined political parties, that the Lords became a reviewing and suspending body. But the Conservatives ended up with a majority in the Lords, and this was where - as so often - the problems started. When the Liberals' 1909 "People's Budget" (with its strangely Blairite name) was thrown out via the Conservatives' Lords majority, a crisis was provoked.

And so we see the real key to the problem - party politics and outright majorities.

After various proposals (like the 1917 Bryce report) and various new changes (like the 1949 Parliament Act, 1958 Life Peerages Act, and 1963 Peerage Act), in 1968-9 an inter-party conference finally came to some relatively sensible decisions:

1) the second chamber should complement but not rival the Commons
2) hereditary membership should be eliminated
3) no one party should possess a permanent majority
4) powers should be restricted - especially regarding subordinate legislation
5) membership should be divided between voting and non-voting peers.

The Lords, being fully aware that their position was increasingly anachronistic in an age of hippies and women's lib, acknowledged that the proposals were in the best interest of the country and - as they did again in 1999 when the hereditary peers voted to abolish themselves - acted like the proverbial turkeys, voting in favour of the House of Lords Reform White Paper by 251 to 56.

But then petty politics got in the way again. The Commons rejected the White Paper, despite all parties having previously agreed, after a filibuster from a cross-party coalition opposed to the then government's position on proposed UN Sanctions on Rhodesia. Which, let's face it, had very little to do with the future of British democracy - but such is the nature of parliamentary politics - point-scoring against one's political opponents is often just as important as actually getting things done.

And this is why - even though this "Lords Reform Day" has been promoted by the Elect the Lords campaign, I cannot advocate an elected upper chamber.

If we accept that the Lords' prime purpose is to scrutinise legislation that will affect the country, identifying flaws and oversights and suggesting possible remedies. If we accept that their prime purpose is to ensure that we end up with the very best laws possible, I do not think that this can be done within a party-political system. And that is what - if we had an elected upper House - we would end up with, because elections cost time and money. Those standing for election would need the kind of support that only a party could provide.

Once you accept party support and allegiance, you lose a certain amount of independence - party support does not come for nothing. They will expect you to help them out in return, and will cut off funding and support if you refuse to comply.

Likewise, once you are beholden to an electorate, and rely on re-election to maintain your position, you are less able to act on your conscience, instead having to second-guess what the people who will be voting for you might want. And the people most certainly do not always know what is best - witness the fact that The Sun is Britain's most popular daily paper. The customer is NOT always right - often, as anyone who has ever dealt with customers will tell you, the customer is not only entirely wrong but also an absolute twat.

The US Supreme Court works largely because those appointed to it are appointed for life. The judges can therefore criticise the sitting government's proposals based exclusively on their expert interpretations of the constitution, with no fear of any kind of reprisals - either through party whips and funding being withdrawn or at the ballot box. The only problems with the Supreme Court appear to arise when it is perceived to become imbalanced, so that conservative interpretations of the constitution outweigh progressive ones, or vice versa.

This is yet another example of how, in a body whose prime purpose is to act as a check on the government of the day, overall majorities of one viewpoint are a BAD THING. With elections - even staggered elections over extended periods based on proportional representation systems - overall majorities can be hard to avoid.

An imbalance of opinion is, however, somewhat easier to achieve with the US Supreme Court than it would be with the House of Lords as there are only nine judges, yet hundreds of peers. It took Tony Blair nearly eight years to appoint enough life peers to give Labour more lords than any other party, but even so he hasn't managed to gain an overall majority, and the presence of the unaligned Cross-benchers (about a third of the total) should ensure that this never happens.

There's another useful comparison from our own country - the Bank of England. Since the 1998 Bank of England Act, the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee has had sole right to set the UK's interest rates, working to promote price stability and economic growth entirely independently of the government. As with the US Supreme Court, none of the Committee's members have been elected - they are there by dint of having been recognised as experts in the field by their colleagues. As with the US Supreme Court, the Committee does not necessarily act in the interests of the government, but in the interests of the country.

And it is this - "the interests of the country" which is how the Lords should (and usually does) act. Thanks to their lack of need for party support or to suck up to the electorate, peers who sit for life can act on their conscience. The honour of having been recognised as worthy of a peerage simply underlines the fact that peers should act with honour - this is not an appointment based on who spent the most on advertising or who managed to find more dirt on their opponent but, technically at least, on merit.

The peers are not just some schmuck who managed to suck up to the right person at party HQ - like the majority of MPs. They are supposed to be the country's best and brightest. They include experts in almost every field on which the government may legislate: economics, law, science, media - you name it, there are members of the House of Lords who are world-leaders on the subject at hand. Would we be able to ensure such a spread of expertise through election? Such independence?

If we accept the very first point - that the Commons doesn't have the time or manpower to properly examine all legislation - then we can accept that Lords exists to scrutinse. To properly scrutinise, you need people who know what to look for. Some random bloke who stands for election is not necessarily going to know what to look for. So we need the very best, the people with the most expertise in every area going. The Lords does not need democracy - it needs meritocracy.

And so the solution to how to appoint the Lords? Well, the 1917 Bryce report proposed a House three-quarters elected indirectly on a regional basis, one quarter chosen by a joint standing committee of both houses, with a proportion of hereditary peers and bishops. I'd obviously ignore the elected part. I'd scrap the hereditary peers. I'd scrap the majority of bishops (although as long as the church remains established we'd need a few in there - but we'd also need leading expert representatives from all the other major religions in this country to help scrutinise religious legislation).

So we'd be left with the joint standing committee of both houses to make appointments. That would remove the Prime Minister's patronage issue and so prevent the ability of the government of the day to whack its buddies in the upper House and then give them high-powered jobs (Lord Adonis, anyone?). It would enable debate and scrutiny of every potential member to ensure that they are up to the standards required. It would maintain a cross-party make-up, and be able to bring in non-parliamentary experts to advise on the qualifications of potential new peers. And once its decisions had been made, appointments would remain - bar disciplinary procedures allowing expulsion which would probably be sensible - for life.

It is only with a meritocratic system in the Lords that legislation can be properly examined. Rushing towards a democratic system simply for the sake of democracy is not only foolish, but dangerous. The electorate is easily distracted and confused and, given a straight choice between voting for the world's leading biochemist or someone who used to be on Eastenders, we all know that they'd likely opt for the latter. And as much as Martine McCutcheon may have a lovely bubbly personality and a surprisingly OK singing voice, I wouldn't trust her to examine my shit, let alone a bill proposing a broad range of new legislation for the pharmaceuticals industry.

And that, in short, is why the Lords should not be elected - the Eastenders factor. We've got enough democracy with the Commons - and people hardly bother to vote for that.

(We'll leave the lack of separation of powers and the lack of a directly-elected executive for another time, I think...)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

An alternative would be to appoint a portion of the lords from within panels. So have the cross-house committee choose the panels and have the panels arrange the elections/appointments. Things like recent immigrants, religious panels, scientific panels, farming panels, unemployed, business groups, legal groups. Doesn't really matter so long as you get a good cross-section of reasonably qualified people from across the country. A regionally elected panel would be good too. The sort of meritocracy you talk about will tend to appoint from within despite its best intentions. Panels aren't a good word here. I'm thinking of quite large constituencies - maybe all long-term unemployed or all first-generation immigrants. All academics in a given field. All company directors.

The point of the second house should be both scrutinise legislation, as you say, and to offset the unavoidable bias against minority or geographically dispersed interests in a majority system - especially one as distorting as the first past the post system the UK has. Remind me what percentage of voters voted for the current government?

Personally I'd go for a third regionally elected, on a list system over fairly large regions, a third appointed by panels and a third appointed by government. That should hopefully leave no more than two thirds being useless idiots, putting it far ahead of any elected parliament I've ever seen.

8/10/2005 12:27:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Yep - I was pondering some kind of panel type thing of specialist selection committees. You need experts to choose experts, after all. There's certainly a danger of them only picking their mates, though, so you'll need some balancing factors on any selection committee as well.

Given enough time I'm sure I could twig some kind of workable proposal - but the post was already pretty lengthy and I'm supposed to be working, so I thought I'd try and wrap it up.

8/10/2005 12:32:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exceedingly well put Mr N, and you've saved me the bother of writing about it today, so thanks :)

"The problem of finding a collection of ‘wise’ men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. That is the ultimate reason for democracy" – Bertrand Russell

Expect some fun comments on here, from people who are rather struck by the word 'democracy'. I got a bit of stick when I just touched on the subject in an off-hand manner a while ago:

But then, yours is a proper expounding, so you might get off ok. Mr McKeating may think otherwise, however ;) "Arguments for an unelected House of Lords are indefensible"

We shall see...

8/10/2005 01:51:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well that link didn't copy too well.

I gues I'll have to do it the proper way

8/10/2005 01:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I commented on another blog:-

Elect the Lords? No way! Non! Niet!

These proposals will bring nothing but doom and destruction upon our country? Just think of the terrible things already perpetrated by the ones who are elected in the Commons, and only then does one realise what is in store if all the buggers are elected! The rot set in within our Parliamentary system immediately after King Canute asked his advisers what he should do with the ocean, as it kept coming in! The sheer stupidity of seeking advice! We see the end result of that little exercise with the likes of Alistair Campbell being allowed unfettered access to Number Ten, in the full knowledge of his fervent support of Burnley, when everyone knows that all support should in fact be given to Newcastle United, who need all the support they can get!

We should immediately get Her Majesty to dissolve Her parliament, on the grounds that they have lost their way, and replace our system of Government with one based loosely on the Islamic tradition, but without all the beards, headscarves, Semtex(TM), male domination and general stupidity! The Queen would rule by decree, and as she has demonstrated that she is dead clever, her word would indeed be law! When the unfortunate moment comes to pass that she dies, the title of “Our Kid” would automatically land on the shoulders of the member of the Royal Family who has said or done the least amount of embarrassing things. If the selection process turns to Lady Louise Windsor, the daughter of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, on the grounds that she is the only member of the Royal Family who qualifies, as she is only nineteen months old, that should not be seen to be a barrier, as she couldn’t do any worse than the shower who have been in power in Parliament for the past eight odd years! She could rule through a Regency, made up of rejected parliamentary candidates for UKIP, (rejected on the grounds that they were too extreme!) and we would once more stand high in the League of Nations, (we would bring that one back as well, as the UN has been disastrous), and would once more rule the Empire! (Got to keep the fuzzies under control!)

8/10/2005 03:32:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember quite liking Billy Bragg's suggestion for Lords reform, but I can't remember what they involved.

One thing I do know - I certainly don't want a second house full of party politicians, except elected with something like a 15% turnout.


8/10/2005 06:22:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bragg's idea, as I understand it, was to base the second chamber on the votes of the general election, in a more or less pure PR way.

Which is dumb, because it bases it on party politics, and ignores the role of the crossbenchers (crudely speaking, of course)

8/10/2005 06:52:00 pm  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

Smashing post, NM. Just stumbled across it while showing the wonderful world of the blogosphere to my mother. We are both broadly in agreement with you, but where we differ with you also differs between us (if you get what I mean...). Anyway, I'm on hols at the moment, but will certainly link to you when I get back. I think you have also gained an extra reader in the form of my dear ma. Cheers!

8/10/2005 08:47:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More on Billy's idea here:

Reminding myself of the details of it, it does sound like it eliminates the party list issue - lords would be elected for fixed 8 year terms with no possibility of extension, so no need to suck up to anyone to stay on the party list. Party membership would mean as much or as little as it does at present in the Lords.

And as lords don't need to individually campaign for election in the first place, or represent a constituency, I can see a lot of experts hitting the end of their careers being happy to volunteer wehen they wouldn't if it involved the usual process.

Hardly a New England, but a sensible enough reform.

8/10/2005 09:09:00 pm  
Blogger Neil Harding said...

Sorry, Mr Nosemonkey, I cannot agree with you. As I have said to Paul Davies on the Make Votes Count site, your argument could quite easily be used to justify the aristocracy or a dictatorship.

You say the lords is full of experts, well can you name some. I would hazard a guess that there are a hell of a lot of people there who are 'useless old duffers'. They are probably even less representative than the Commons, which is bad enough because of FPTP!

You have a very low opinion of the general public! Customers are not often 'absolute twats', and if the public do not know what is best, why have any elections at all?

I accept your argument about party control and constituency work, but that does not mean we cannot have a completely elected chamber. Or failing that, what about a lottery every year with members of the public allowed to apply.

I'm sure some of the Lords are experts in their fields, but I hate this patronising tone that the general public are not good enough to be involved in politics, when the problem is they are kept out of politics too much.

8/11/2005 03:17:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil, democracy is not a perfect system. It's not magic. It has all sorts of shortcomings. The second house is, or should be, an attempt to work around the shortcomings. Ultimate power should be in the hands of the democratically elected politicians, and NM hasn't questioned that, and there are arguments in favour of aristocracies and dictatorships. There are just many, many more arguments against them.

I'm with the "democracy is the worst system except for all the others" brigade, so if you believe it's a magic panacea then we have a basic philosophical divide.

The point is not that the general public are idiots, though I would suggest you take a look around you to find evidence for the theory that they're not always very smart. The point is that we're not all knowing and could do with some help.

The lottery idea works for me, at least to some extent. You appoint part of the second house that way. It'd be fun.

8/11/2005 08:00:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Neil, yes, my arguments COULD be used to justify a dictatorship - only it would be falsely, because no single person can possibly have all the expertise that would be required. Nor could it really be used to justify an aristocracy - at least, not in the hereditary sense, as each generation of the aristocracy would have different skill sets.

Simple question to demonstrate why you need something more than mere random selection or the whim of the public:

If you had a brain tumour, would you go to a neurosurgeon or a chap down the pub who reckons he's got a Swiss Army knife back at his gaff?

Legislation is too important to allow any Tom, Dick or Harry to alter it. It's the most important kind of legal document going. If you get a solicitor to check over your mortgage details, you'd surely also want an expert to check over other vitally important documents?

It's not being patronising towards the public (especially), merely underlining that this kind of stuff is too serious and important to allow it to be fucked up. The House of Lords Appointments Commission guidelines give an indication of the sorts of things that are required - no party allegiance and years of experience and expertise.

8/11/2005 09:48:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you go with the principle of Lords being experts in one particular area, then, with something like 1200 active lords, it makes sense for along with the Law Lords and Sea Lords and Lords Spiritual, there should be a Blog Lord, responsible for checking the details of any legislation that might affect internet discussion.

8/11/2005 10:34:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You say the lords is full of experts...I would hazard a guess that there are a hell of a lot of people there who are 'useless old duffers'. They are probably even less representative than the Commons, which is bad enough because of FPTP!"

On what grounds? Yes there are a load of useless pensioners, but at least it keeps them out of trouble. Seriously though, there is no reason to suspect that they are any worse than MPs, and given that a lot of them have got there on observable merit, as opposed to most MPs, who get to the commons on the back of marketing and long-held beliefs...

And less representative-maybe, less useless-probably not

"You have a very low opinion of the general public! Customers are not often 'absolute twats', and if the public do not know what is best, why have any elections at all?"

Not always, of course, but 'most' people are offensively stupid. (NB: choice of words for effect, not total accuracy)

And I would've thought the reason for having elections was obvious: it keeps people happy, and therefore more compliant (as well as all the other checks and balances stuff, even if it doesn't work that well)

This isn't to say, obviously, that when we do have elections, they shouldn't be conducted less risibly.

And just for the hell of it:

"The democratic politician, confronted by the dishonesty and stupidity of his master, the mob, tries to convince himself and all the rest of us that it is really full of rectitude and wisdom." -H.L. Mencken

8/11/2005 12:26:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for the record, in case it wasn't clear: I will always defend EVERY man's right to have his say, including illiterates, chavs, the BNP/SWP, whoever...'s just that most should be advised against it ;)

8/11/2005 12:32:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should probably say, before I get in too much trouble, that I do hold great hope for the people's ability to be won over eventually by reasoned argument, as I believe they will one day be by the case for PR.

But as it stands, too many people are simply too scared (or perhaps incapable) of thinking about things, and (consciously or unconsciously) prefer to let others do it for them, be it The Sun, their party leader, the Bible, the Koran etc etc. This power has, I believe, waned, considerably so since the communication revolution, but it still happens at an agonisingly slow rate.

8/11/2005 12:46:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike Cunningham - King Canute didn't ask his advisors what to do with the tide, he was in fact showing how stupid his obseqious courtiers were - they said he was so great he could turn back the tide, he went out to prove otherwise.

This was a very intersting piece NM, I've long been in favour of a wholly elected house of lords, but your arguments have made me reconsider my position. I still believe there has to be a democratic element, possibly with these acting as the (or a good proportion of the) voting lords, and with very long periods of office (eg 20 years, but a quarter refreshed every 5 years to ensure that it is at least partly contemporaneous).
There should certainly be a way of co-opting people onto committees for particular pieces of legislation who wouldn't necessarily want to interrupt their entire high-flying careers to spend their time in the lords, but would provide valuable expertise.

8/11/2005 01:50:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would have used trackback too...

8/19/2005 07:33:00 pm  
Blogger Richard Gadsden said...

If it is to be meritocratic, then do it the old-fashioned, English way of doing a meritocracy: by examination.

9/02/2005 01:11:00 pm  

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