Create a House of Talents

11 May 2011

There is a better way than direct election to make Parliament’s Second Chamber more representative, argues John F. H. Smith.

CONSTITUTIONAL reform is in the air, despite the outcome of the Alternative Vote referendum. Even if AV had been approved, it would have had little impact compared with pro­posals to reform the House of Lords.

The details released so far suggest an 80-per-cent elected House, but this is hardly surprising. The word “election” has become a sacred cow, and carries with it the same emo­tional appeal as “liberty”, “freedom”, or “peace”. In this case, however, its use has obscured any real considera­tion of what an elected House of Lords would actually look like or achieve.

Even in its present terminally wounded state, the House of Lords performs a valuable constitutional function. It is a revising chamber that does not undermine the au-thority of the elected House of Com­mons, and can act as a mod­era­tor and brake on the actions of the Lower House. During the 1980s, it was seen as the only real opposition to Mrs Thatcher’s large Commons majorities; after 1997, it was not afraid to stand up to Tony Blair’s Labour majority, even when under virtual sentence of death.

A GENERAL principle is that any reform should remedy existing de­fects and create something better. This principle is undermined if, in the process, current virtues are thrown away. Few would deny the need to make the House of Lords more representative, but, before opting for direct election, we should examine what the House currently contributes to modern political life, and then try to reinforce its positive aspects.

Of course, the composition of the House is wholly undemocratic, even now, after the departure of most of the hereditary peers. Reform is necessary, but, against this, it has been said of the House of Lords that it has “more expertise in more fields than any other legislature in the world”. We lose this strength at our peril, and direct election could easily threaten it.

The sort of maturity and wisdom we seek for members of the Second Chamber does not sit easily with the elective process as we know it today. Ambition, power-seeking, and a career structure all have an effect on the way elections and electioneering are conducted. And when elections are over, salaries, party organisation, and whipping come into play. The hurly-burly of the hustings can be a deterrent to the sort of candidate that the Second Chamber is seeking: thoughtful, precise, non-adversarial, and not bound by party slogans or simple popular messages.

Elections give an elected body the authority of its electorate, and if this is the same electorate that elects the House of Commons, the Lords could justly claim parity, causing real con­stitutional problems.

Furthermore, electing both Lords and Commons at a single General Election would tend to produce Houses of a similar political com­plexion; while electing them at dif­fer­ent times could fall prey to the nation’s habit of reacting against the party in power. The first scenario could undermine the Lords’ vital task of standing up to the Commons when necessary; whereas the second could produce direct conflict be­tween two Houses of equal authority.

The proposed mixed system of appointment and election is also not a satisfactory solution. It risks creat­ing tiers of members perceived to be of different value, depending on their method of appointment.

BUT, if direct election is not the answer, how might we proceed? First, we need to ask what we really want from a reformed House. The Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords (Wakeham Com­mission, 2000) tackled this question admirably, but, unfortu­nately, its conclusions undermined its own analysis.

We certainly need a House that is “broadly representative of the whole of British society”, but also one that truly represents the nation’s exper­t-ise, is independently minded, and is a place where debates can continue to be “less adversarial, better tem­pered and better informed” than in the “other place”. It is also essential that we have a revising chamber that will not cause a constitutional crisis every time it opposes the House of Commons.

To obtain expertise and achieve a broadly representative assembly, one solution would be to go to the ex­perts themselves. The UK is well provided with professional, learned bodies, and other organisations that together represent a cross-section of the skills and expertise that the country possesses. Why not ask each area to establish an electoral college to choose the most appropriate people to sit in the House of Lords?

Such electoral colleges would be in a pre-eminent position to identify members with “a wide experience outside the world of politics, an ability to take the long view and bring a philosophical, moral or spiritual perspective to debates, and to be non-polemical and free from party domination” (Wakeham). We might, therefore, see electoral col­leges representing science, the arts, academia and education, industry, finance, law, medicine, culture, the media, trade unions, and so on.

If we took this approach, each college would already have the institutions in place from which to manage appointments. For example, an electoral college representing the medical professions might be made up of electors appointed by the BMA, the nursing profession, and a wide range of other health-care organisations. The principle of bring­ing together specific groups within an overarching discipline would be applied across the board.

The seeds of such a move could already be in place. The Church of England has persuaded the Govern­ment to retain some Anglican bishops (though many fewer than be­fore), recognising that the ex­pertise that they bring to debates is too valuable to lose.

We could go further, however. Certainly, retain the bishops and, as representatives of the Established Church, even keep them in the majority; but broaden faith repres­entation via an interdenominational and interfaith college. Religious leaders would, therefore, continue to widen debate by bringing moral and philosophical perspectives to stand alongside the political, economic, and financial judgements of other groups.

The aim here is to establish a principle rather than to prescribe actual electoral colleges, and some colleges might have to operate dif­ferently. One might be established to appoint politicians to the Upper House who have finished their time in the Commons, so that we can continue to gain from their political experience; while a larger general college might provide the oppor­tunity for people not belonging to a professional body or trades union to sit in the Lords. This would ensure a voice for areas of society that currently feel unrepresented.

Such a system would be inexpen­sive to establish, and could be largely self-financing, with con­tribu­tions from the institutions comprising each electoral college. Such would be their number that the cost to each would be small, and, of course, with the added incentive of getting a voice close to central government.

Each electoral college could decide for itself the mechanics for appointment, though working with­in broad guidelines. This is not the place to be precise in specifying individual colleges or numbers, but 16 “specialist” colleges appointing, say, 15 members, and the parlia­mentary and general colleges ap­point­ing 30 each, would result in the Government’s recommended House of 300 members. But an electoral-college system could cater for a House of any size.

SUGGESTIONS of this sort were rejected by the Wakeham Commis­sion as “indirect election”, with the implication that they were élitist and undemocratic. But is this so? The aim is to get the best people chosen from all levels of society, and broad­ness of approach would be a guiding principle in establishing the electoral colleges.

It is hard to accuse a system of being élitist when individuals from any walk of life could be appointed, and could come from a much wider spec­trum of society than candidates who currently stand for election to the Commons.

We wish the House of Lords to be an expert, advisory, and revising chamber; so why not devise a way of choosing the best people to sit in it? The chamber, though it can initi­ate legislation, ultimately still has to defer to the elected Lower House.

By getting the best people from a multiplicity of sources, we would achieve a House of Lords that could continue its positive place in the political life of Britain, and yet be truly representative of its best talents. That has to be better than having a con­stitutional crisis every time one House comes into conflict with the other.

John F. H. Smith is an architec­tural historian. Many of his sugges­tions are presented in greater detail in his submission (1377) to the Royal Com­mission on the Reform of the House of Lords (Wakeham Commis­sion, Cm 4534, 2000).

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