Given the recent statement of intent of our new government*, it is imperative that we begin the argument now.
Suggested improvements are very welcome but I am particularly eager to receive arguments against. Indeed, I would be quite happy for this to be the place where the argument for an elected second chamber wins by good reasoning.
This document (version 01) will remain in a state of flux until the first comment is accepted, at which point the writing of version 02 will begin.
We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation — Full document here http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_187876.pdf
We have two legislative chambers in Parliament. Whilst there is some agreement that the first should switch to a system of Proportional Representation, the question of what to do with the second remains very open.
If we get an elected second chamber, we will almost certainly lock ourselves in to such a system forever. We may well learn from our mistake, but empiricism will be too late to save good reason.
One or Two
With a democratically elected first house, we often suffer from a government with a landslide majority in the Commons. Consequently the opposition parties become largely impotent and it is only the Lords that is able to provide any kind of effective resistance to bad legislation. This happened most notably when the Thatcher government was at its height.
But, if two decision making bodies are composed in the same way, it is likely that the second will become merely a rubber-stamp for the first. Alternatively, two democratically elected houses might become unhelpful antagonists, each vying to assert it’s mandate.
The second chamber could (and often does) provide what the first chamber does not, that is people with years of relevant experience, knowledge and understanding. Indeed, if the second chamber was exclusively meritocratic, it might make sense for some debates to begin there.
During the Thatcher years the Lords provided much needed, and effective, opposition. One chamber is not enough: when it goes wrong there’s nothing to stop it. With a first-past-the-post Commons, a meritocratic second chamber provides opposition to a landslide ruling party; with a proportional representation Commons, the second chamber could rescue parliament from the occasional deadlock.
An elected second chamber of independent Senators might provide these benefits IFF a mechanism could be found for meritocratic short-listing. The last thing we need is more party politics and the barriers that brings to sensible decision making: we’ve all watched TV programs like Question Time where party politicians sit on the panel wriggling and squirming whilst they argue that black is white, one plus one equals six and the moon’s made of cheese, just in order to tow the party line and curry favour with their leader.
Vive la Différence
When you have two decision making bodies, the second should provide what the first does not; the imperfections of the first chamber should be balanced by a different system in the second. By analogy, if the effective analgaesic causes nausea, you give the patient an antiemetic not another pain-killer. Similarly, when there are flaws in one house of the legislature, you should try to mitigate their effects through the second house, not compound them with more of the same.
So we should avoid duplication: if the first chamber is primarily a house of representatives then the second should focus on the issues.
Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary. — Robert Louis Stevenson
In few other important areas of our society do we entrust democratically elected amateurs with undertaking important tasks, making decisions and solving problems. Did you elect your Doctor or Surgeon? Think of the last bridge you crossed — was the civil engineer who designed it elected to the task from a list of untrained, inexperienced amateurs? One might argue that marriage is a one-person-one-vote choice, but how often is that a success?
The proposal for a chamber of experts is not elitism. You don’t look at your surgeon’s post-nominals and reject him/her on the grounds of elitism — rather, you are pleased that she is well qualified. We need at least some people in the legislative process who know what they are talking about: these people make the over-arching decisions that influence all our lives, in some cases quite profoundly. Most members of the commons got where they are by standing for the right party in the right place at the right time — period.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana
Experience is valuable — a fact that has been recognised by many civilisations throughout history. A Senate should live up to it’s name and be a house of elders; those with experience.
We, the people, need a second chamber that is informed by education and experience to protect us from a commons that is often biased by ignorance and short-termism.
The irrational idea that there can be nothing but democracy is like a religion: there is only the one true way and anything else is spawn of the Devil.
The argument for an appointed Senate is not an argument against democracy — just as an argument in favour of a diet rich in vitamins and minerals is not an argument against protein — it is an argument for balance.
Democracy is necessary for a well-functioning society, but it is not sufficient.
Revisory AND Advisory
Members of the Commons do have advisers. But they are free to ignore them, completely if they so choose. A Senate of experts would be advisory as well as revisory. MPs would not be able to ignore them, and the electorate would have the opportunity to hear the expert advice, putting them in a much stronger position to lobby their MPs.
A house of independent Senators, to replace the House of Lords, consisting of former MPs (chosen from those who have served the longest) plus the most senior fellows of Chartered Institutions, and similar learned bodies, all appointed by a commission.
- Clamour for an elected Lords doesn’t herald democracy, but a power grab | Simon Jenkins (guardian.co.uk)
- Don’t destroy the Lords (guardian.co.uk)
- Moving to an elected second chamber – a loss of expertise, or just privilege? (libdemvoice.org)
- David Cameron opens PMQs by setting date for first draft of Lords reform (guardian.co.uk)