Introduction: House of Lords reform is next
Now that it is certain that the AV referendum will take place on May 5, coinciding with local election day and elections in Scotland and Wales (incidentally, this date is one which I first broke to the nation, scooping the BBC and everyone else: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/07/av-referendum-to-be-announced-next-week-held-in-may/ ), it is a good time to reflect on the strange beast that is the House of Lords, that almost scuppered this referendum (albeit not without some good reason!: see http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/michael-wills/house-of-lords-is-right-to-challenge-coalition-on-where-we-vote ).
There is of course a lot to be said for the House of Lords, at least as compared to the conduct of many of those who have won election to the House of Commons! In respect of this latest example, for instance, it is clear that in some respects they have intelligently improved the bill that will allow the AV referendum to go ahead, in particular by loosening the tightness of the strictures on constituency size.
But in the end, one thing is inescapable: the method of selection of the Lords – essentially, patronage – is just fundamentally unacceptable in a modern democracy. We need to have a House of Lords candidates for which are picked in some other, better way: either by election via proportional representation (which is Green Party policy, and seems likely to be the route that the Coalition chooses), or by lot (selection, that is, via the so-called ‘Athenian option’, argued for by OK’s Anthony Barnett: see this intriguing review: http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/the-athenian-option/ ).
Once the AV referendum has been won (or lost – please let it not be lost! #Yes2AV !), then the burden of constitutional reform will switch to the question of the House of Lords. This is not a ‘long-grass’ issue – Clegg and others in his Party are determined to make progress on it, and rightly so. It is in this context that I have been working on this issue.
For I think that we need to broaden our sense of what can be achieved in House of Lords reform. It is not enough merely to democratise the upper house; we ought to seize this opportunity to rethink its raison d’etre. Especially as, if we have elections for the Lords, there will be a greater need to distinguish the Lords more radically from the Commons. One way to do so would be to give it a new purpose, besides just being a revising chamber. And that is the purpose of this ‘thinkpiece’: to suggest such a new purpose.
A new, ‘green’ purpose for the upper house; and how best to select candidates for it
What if we were to make the House of Lords into the House of the Voiceless? A place where the interests of non-human animals and of future people (see my http://www.opendemocracy.net/rupert-read/last-refuge-of-prejudice ) were, by oath, the first concern of the senators (if such is to be their new names)?
This would of course actually fit particularly well, if the selection of all or some candidates for this chamber were to be done by lot. (You could for instance select most of the senators making up the new Upper House by PR, and the rest, those designated specifically perhaps as ‘guardians’ for the voiceless, by lot: that would be a ‘hybrid’ upper house that could achieve the tasks of revising legislation and of protecting voiceless people/beings, in tandem. See below…) For then it would make great sense, to think of those selected as being given a special vocation (as jurors have, in another context) to voice the concerns of the voiceless.
The idea that I had some years ago (here is one of the first places that I started to write it up: http://rupertread.org/rupertread.org/wordpress/?p=1227), a proposal that I have been developing in my philosophical work recently, and that I have been speaking on in various fora (see http://rupertread.org/rupertread.org/wordpress/?p=456 , and http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_W5PrTdY3Jko/TTdrP14adxI/AAAAAAAAAfU/hrdjZXsSlIg/s1600/programme_25feb2010_draft.jpg ), is specifically that all or (perhaps better still) some portion of the new upper house should be constituted by ordinary citizens selected by lot to represent powerfully the voices of the voiceless, in the deliberations of the nation. I recently offered evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (on which Green Party MP Caroline Lucas sits: see here for my evidence: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenvaud/writev/esd/esd12.htm), along these lines.
It would be interesting to know what readers of Rupert’s Read think of this idea (or rather, more strictly speaking, of this phalanx of related ideas, for there are obviously various different ways in which the basic impulse here could be implemented, as I have already implied).
For those without time to visit the links, here is the idea is in a nutshell:
From the House of Lords to the guardians
Plato said we should be ruled by guardians. Habermas and other deliberative-democratic philosophers of course abhor the anti-democratic sentiment permeating Plato’s proposal, and rightly so. But… what if the guardians were selected democratically, for example by sortition? And: what if their deliberations became a high-profile model of what deliberation in a democratic society could be?
Still, there seems little case for substituting guardians for normal elected representatives, for decisions which can be made about us, by people who represent us. But… what about cases where the people, the beings who ought to be heard in or even to be making the decisions have no voice — even over matters which are life or death matters for them?
Future people are the most obvious case of such people. I propose therefore powerful guardians for future people / guardians of the future / guardians of future generations, either to take the place in our system of the royal assent, or to occupy part of the role of the upper house in the course of House of Lords reform.
Their most fundamental powers, besides standard revising powers, would be, on my proposal:
a) To veto in whole or in part new legislation that threatened the basic needs and fundamental interests of future people / of the voiceless.
b) To force a review, on petitioning, if appropriate, of any existing legislation or of administrative decisions that threaten the basic needs and fundamental interests of future people / of the voiceless.
Conclusion: A path to a green future, via constitutional reform?
Everyone is agreed that our current democracy is failing to achieve a green future. Why not seize the moment offered by House of Lords reform, and consider some much more radical version of such reform than the Coalition is currently intending? Perhaps then, the time is ripe for thinking about helping to achieve a green future, by creating a new role, that of guardians, who would, in the context of radical reform of the upper house, become and then be an intimate part of our democratic institutions…
For after all: The people who would rule, if we simply move to selecting candidates for the upper house by PR elections, or by lot, without altering the raison d’etre of the upper house, are only the people (in fact, the adult, registered-to-vote, not extremely-infirm etc. people) who are alive now. But surely, ‘the people’ ought to be thought of in a far more temporally extended manner. Does a people only exist as a momentary time-slice? Surely not. A people, a nation-state, a community, a society, is something extended over time. It extends into the past, and extends indefinitely into the future.
Burke, in a passage clearly forgotten by supposed c/Conservatives in UK and USA for 30 years or more, says that society is a contract between the dead, the living and those unborn (with no limit specified on the generations ahead)… He is right…
It is clear that we need Lords willing to radically reform or to abolish themselves, if we are to achieve Lords reform, 100 years on from the Parliament Act. But I think, with ecological crisis looming or upon us, it is also high time to think about how such radical reform of the upper house can be dovetailed in with institutional reform to try to help assure a greener future.
Maybe undertaking such thinking would even make the Lords more willing to accept their own exit, in the service of a greater good…