Thursday, March 08, 2007

Democracy or wisdom?

Our elected chamber, the House of Commons, has just turned in an 'indicative' (ie. non-binding) vote in favour of a 100% elected second chamber - currently the House of Lords, which is currently formed by appointments, hereditary rights and bishops (see chart / full data). MPs were asked to vote for various combinations of elected and appointed membership - from fully appointed to fully elected. And they voted for voting (BBC report / Guardian).

To my own surprise, I have serious misgivings about this outbreak of democratic sentiment. The problem is that it will increase political monoculture and weaken the system for decision-making that is parliament. Let's look in more detail...

To be elected almost always involves several characteristics: a willingness to enter an election; a personality that offers mass appeal; participation in a party machine and that entails; subordination to party 'discipline' and whipping in securing a good election result and passing legislation; and probably a certain measure of ambition and maniacal drive. These characteristics act to filter who enters the contest - leaving a quite peculiar subset of people up for the contest.

Though now long gone, my own vague ambitions to enter politics were finished off by reading Jeremy Paxman's book: The Political Animal: an anatomy. The Amazon synopsis gives a flavour:

It can be an unforgiving business for MPs - caricatured as either power-hungry hypocrites or hopeless idealists - years of effort can lead only to defeat, disgrace or obscurity. What sort of person likes having his or her business or family affairs all over the news, or mistakes trumpeted and triumphs belittled? What drives people to go into it - and what do they get from it all?
But why does the 'willingness-to-be-elected' filter matter? Perhaps this selection process provides us with legislators fit for purpose? Let me draw on the ideas of James Surowiecki, from his Wisdom of Crowds... "Wisdom" is an emergent property of a decision-making system, and he suggests four design principles for a wisdom producing decision system. A fully elected second chamber works against at least three of of them:

  1. Diversity - many types of personality, experience and ability will simply not wish to pass through the filter described above. A relative monoculture will follow - and, dangerously, this will resemble the elected chamber because the same filters and constraints will apply.
  2. Independence - once elections are involved, party discipline will inevitably take hold. Some control will be exercised over who can stand and what they are required to do be given the best jobs and safest seats. "Loyalty" will be at a premium.
  3. Decentralisation - (people can draw on specialisation or local knowledge). But political parties tend to promote orthodoxy, have manifestos and a particular reading of facts.
  4. Aggregation - well it's possible that a new system will be less effective at aggregating such diverse, independent and decentralised opinions that survive the willingness-to-be-elected filter because two elected chambers would have each have claims to supremacy. At present, the Lords has a clearly subordinated 'revising' and advisory role, with an a means to override its opposition (The Parliament Acts)
My proposal - the House of Public Life
Having said all that, the current system with its rampant patronage, residual hereditary peers, privileges for church grandees and other anachronisms is hardly satisfactory either. What about a completely different approach? I suggest a system which relies on representing 'civil society'. Instead of appointing individuals, political parties would nominate perhaps 400 organisations (current membership is 731) that covered the spectrum of public life - alternatively the task of selection could be given to an independent appointments commission (guided by principles of securing wide coverage, a degree of balance and good organisational integrity), with parties making recommendations. Those organisations would then be required to select a representative to sit in the second chamber for a fixed term by democratic and transparent means.

What would it look like...?
Organisations might include the medical Royal Colleges, scientific societies like the Royal Society, health charities like Cancer Research UK, professional institutions like the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, trades guilds like the Worshipful Company of Plumbers, housing charities like Shelter, the Local Government Association, poverty campaigners, children's organisations like Banardo's, trade unions, business organisations like the CBI, green groups like Friends of the Earth, regeneration charities like Groundwork, consumer bodies like the Consumers Association, think tanks like Chatham House, development groups like Oxfam, British Legion, the AA, pensioners groups like Help the Aged... and so on. Each organisation would be responsible for the integrity of its appointee and for conducting an open and honest selection process - it could choose to collaborate with others in its field that are not selected. But 400 organisations should give a good spread.

Those selected would swear an oath to serve parliament (just as British officials going to the European Union are required at act in the interests of the Union, not their original member state) and some limits may be placed on rights to intervene (eg. make amendments to legislation) where there are competing interests. Perhaps cynically, it would become known as the 'House of Interests', but I think its diversity, independence and decentralisation would be its strength - and those characteristics would be self-balancing against domination be particular interests. Each three years or so, there would be a 'relegation' and 'promotion' round to secure some movement - relegation may be done through a lottery, on recommendations or by voting appearances.

It would also bring a vast wealth of experience into parliament directly and it would provide a valuable hybrid between elections and appointments.

Is this mad?


Caspar Henderson said...

Difficult to see how to get there, which is not the same as mad.

Maybe the system you are suggest has some parallels with a pre-modern system of government in which representatives of the different "estates" were appointed (Then it was bishops, commoners, merchants; today it would be scientists, NGO heads, Jain, Muslim and Rastafarian clerics..)

What kind of abuses would the system be open to. Who would appoint the guardians? What about civil society groups that didn't make it into the magic circle?

I guess you are not suggesting the House of Life should replace both current houses? I'm not wild about losing direct the principle of direct representation of the people, which is/should be part of what the Commons is for.

Among other interesting ideas is the appointment of an upper house of ordinary citizens drawn by lot. Ancient Anthens had a version (see Anthony Barnett of Charter 88 and openDemocracy has advocated an version of this.

Clive Bates said...

Hello Caspar

This is proposed as an alternative to the Lords, not the Commons - which also needs reform but that's a different story. Definitely retain an elected body that has ultimate primacy. A House of Public Life is proposed as an alternative to the revising and advising chamber - the body that provides diverse and independent scrutiny.

I'd envisage some churn in who is in, and I'd expect innovation in how organisations made their appointment... for example a place allocated to Oxfam, while the responsibility of that organisation, could be determined by votes from the wider development community (BOND members) - or several seats offered to similar interests could be pooled.

The idea of appointing organisations rather than individuals is that organisations have 'governance' - boards, constitutions, members etc and should be less susceptible to impropriety, improper influence, backhanders etc.

Many of the 'who would appoint who?' questions apply to all other systems - even elections, in which some candidates are appointed to safe seats, the upper reaches of party lists etc.

On the Athenian model, I'm not sure this does the job we need done by the House of Lords - namely wise and credible challenge to the elected chamber. Implicit in the idea of random citizen selection is that this is a role that can be done well by anyone. I just don't think that is right.

We do this sort of thing with juries of course, but judges give them very clear guidance. I think the Athenian idea for a legislature is more analogous to selecting judges at random.

Anonymous said...

Not mad at all - more like a brilliant solution to a problem that too few people recognise.

As I wrote in a letter published in The Times in 1998:

"Much has been said of the 'unelected' nature of the House of Lords. However, many of its active members have at some time not only been elected MPs but also re-elected several times after proven service. Others have been elevated in recognition of the regard of wide sections of the public for their exceptional achievement or long commitment to public or popular institutions.

"Do not the appointments of such members in some ways have more democratic validity than those of untried politicians whose vague promises seemed the least dangerous of the three unknowns on our ballot papers?"

What I could not see was how to improve on the random and dodgy mix of inheritance and patronage that put them there.

I really think that your idea is sensible, democratically defensible and workable (though probably wholly repugnant to professional politicians!) and deserves the widest possible circulation ASAP.

Anonymous said...

some more great ideas from the Butty. One of the big plusses you haven't brought out is that it would force the big battalions in some of the membership organisations to connect their unaccountable political lobbying with the hopes and aspirations of their members. And it might open this activity up to wider scrutiny and hold NGOs to account for their effectiveness.

How about starting a No.10 petition we could all sign.

Anonymous said...

I can understand your concerns but there are potential protections against an elected second chamber being full of careerist politicos.

We could have the senators elected on long tenures with a maximum, say, two terms. There could be elections every, say, three years when part of the membership would be elected.

An electoral system like single transferable vote would create opportunities for independents.