I’ve been pondering what to do about the house of lords for quite a while, and at some point last year I came up with a scheme that I liked. I’m sure it’s not an original idea, but I haven’t actually seen it expressed elsewhere, so I’ve been meaning to write it down.
I live in Scotland now, and so the Independence debate that is currently raging has a direct impact on my future. I’m broadly in favour, but I recently discovered that the proposal includes no second chamber. This seems like a bad idea to me, so I humbly submit the following as an alternative plan…
First, it’s worth saying briefly what I don’t want, and why.
A house of lords, with membership chosen on the basis of parentage and/or hieararchical position in various religious bodies. Do I really need to explain why this is a bad idea?
A house of politicians, elected on broadly the same basis as the first chamber, but with superficial differences in the length of their term or their consitutencies. This seems to be to simply entrench the political orthodoxy, and hand complete control to the party machines.
A house of political appointees, chosen by the establishment, for the establishment. Kind of like the house of lords now, without the hereditaries. This is actually the best solution in this short list, in my opinion, because the people who make up this body tend to be more experienced, and have actually done things other than politics. They are also generally older and care less about the need to toe any particular party line. There’s still far too much opportunity for reenforcing privilege for my liking.
So my alternative, in a nutshell, is this:
Lets unpack this a bit.
I would like the house to be elected. Democracy is flawed, but, to paraphrase Churchill, it’s the least worst alternative.
I would like to avoid another house organised on party lines.
I would like a house that retained the likelihood of most members being substantial, experienced, and having had a life outside of politics.
I would like to retain the possibility of people in the house being there to represent things that large numbers of people in society at large care about. A tiny selection of examples might be ecology, animal rights, religion, social justice, pacifism, free trade, protectionism, law and order, human rights, freedom of speech, net neutrality, or the merit (or otherwise) of early Johnny Depp movies.
I’d like the list of these groups to be fluid, and to reflect what society feels is important at the time. No more permanent seats for religion, but while enough people care about it, that’s just fine. Much like the basket of items used by the government to estimate the current value of inflation, it should evolve as the world changes.
The way I see this working is broadly as follows.
Whilst this sort of system would have been completely impractical before the internet, in today’s world it is utterly achievable.
The process of proposing constituencies could and should be a pretty free-form business. It’s possible that it would require some form of bureaucracy to avoid time wasters - requiring a small group of interested individuals to self-organise first - but that’s about it.
The people who are paying attention at this point might be saying: “Wait - there’s a danger of duplication of effort here. What if the People’s Front of Judea and The Judean People’s front both propose virtually identical but different constituencies?”.
That’s a risk, but by definition, the serious groups, the ones addressing issues that enough people care about, are likely to organise themselves and emerge. The ones that are divided won’t get their collective shit together, and will fall by the wayside.
Whilst the process of choosing constituencies sounds like an added complication, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be run in parallel with the election for candidates, simply offset by one term. So whilst you’re electing this term’s candidates, you also express your choices for next term’s constituencies.
This requires a single, initial choice of constituencies, but after that the process sustains itself.
One danger I can see is an impractically large churn, with too many constituencies coming and going. A way of avoiding that is that for every election, we only get to replace a small percentage of the constituencies - say 10%. Much like football teams at the end of a season, a few of the least successfull ones get replaced with a fresh crop of up-and-coming hopefuls. Short-term stability is maintained, but the composition of the league may be radically different after a number of seasons.
My hope with this system is that the candidates who emerge to stand for the various constituencies will generally be substantial, experienced people. One can imagine that they might be religious leaders, industry leaders, trade union leaders, senior police officers, military, academics, activists, artists, journalists, and so on. People who know a lot about their chosen field, and have something intelligent to say.
Of course, there’s still plenty of potential here for privilege to win out, and for career politicians to sneak in by the back door. Aguably, it’s hard to get to the top of any profession or organisation without political skills.
I think that a couple of things will help to guard against this however:
Firstly, the constituencies aren’t just professions. They are anything that enough people care about. This includes “alternative” things that currently have very large communities who are essentially underground.
Secondly, by definition, the people who are voting for a given constituency are the people who think that it’s the most important issue for them to express an opinion on. My hope is that this will result in a positive bias towards candidates who actually know what the hell they are talking about. The fakes and fraudsters, and people who are acting as puppets for others, will have a lot more chance of being found out when subjected to scrutiny by their (no pun intended) peers.
So, there you go.
I’m sure there are problems with this idea, and as I said at the beginning, I’m sure someone’s thought of it before.
I do, however, think that it may be the kind of thing that is only now becoming achievable, due to advances in technology.
I’d like to think that it might go someway towards retaining the fairness of the one-person-one-vote principle, whilst fracturing the current effective monopoly enjoyed by a small number of monolithic political parties and a relative small political elite.