What kind of Second Chamber is good for democracy?

By Anthony Barnett
April 5, 2010

Should we have a fully elected second chamber in the UK parliament? I want to say why I believe the answer should be 'no' - for good democratic, reform-minded reasons.

I have supported the Power 2010 (www.power2010.org.uk/) campaign against any more appointments to the Lords. This is not just a matter of putting a stop now to the creation of more phoney cronies. It is indeed a clear way of measuring whether all the protestations of the need for reform and to "restore trust" are made in good faith. However, I am afraid I know the answer. They are not made in good faith. New appointments will be made, including by the Liberal Democrats, on the grounds that they have to "do what they can".

I don't think people really understand how central the House of Lords is to the corruption of UK politics and the reproduction of a grasping political class that hires itself out to corporate interests. If you look at the Channel 4 'Dispatches' film (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-6/epi...) you get more than a glimpse. The prospect of serving in the Lords promises continued influence and huge networking opportunities.

Take a read of another person interviewed by Antony Barnett (no relation and no 'h'!) of Dispatches here:

Lord Lang of Monkton, a Tory ex-Secretary of State for Scotland and President of the Board of Trade (Lord Mandelson's current position, though under a new name) was made chairman of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments by Gordon Brown last summer. He himself benefits from more than a brace of lucrative directorships. He was indirectly associated with a massive insurance fraud. (http://business.scotsman.com/wallstreetfraud/Lord-Lang-accused-over-Mars...)

But Lang vets the business appointments of politicians after they leave the Cabinet. (Think about that, a position of great influence. But he himself is fully implicated in the corporate world. His appointment is unlikely to have been made without consultation with Lord Mandelson and Mandelson is likely to be leaving the Cabinet soon. If he is offered a job on the board of BP Lang, who will be the one who approves this?)

Why should Lang be working for other people? The answer is that it is not only perfectly legal it is understandable as being a member of the House of Lords is unpaid. So we can't even complain about it in the way we can for MPs.

MPs are permitted to work for companies and take consultancies and get most of their pay from commercial sources. This should in fact be illegal. But we can call for such a ban because they are already paid by us as MPs.

However few understand that we can't make the same claim on the Lords. They do not even pretend to work for us (odd exception aside). They work for and represent other interests. Of course, we are told that it is wonderful to have surgeons and broadcasters and architects and self-made professionals and even some businessmen who have made their own fortunes, giving the chamber their wisdom. These are a minority.

When there were hereditary peers these manifestly represented landed interests and inherited wealth. This lot, hundreds of them, represent the interests of international corporations who pay them whether directly or indirectly. They should be called Company Lords and Corporate Lords. Then at least it would be, as they say, transparent.

Thus there is an urgent need to abolish the House Lords as it stands - not a thirty-year gradual process, as Jack Straw is proposing. The House as it stands is a motor of double-dealing behind a facade of ermine. The 24 Church of England bishops and two archbishops also give lustre and legitimacy to its dim, dark politics.

Fine then, replace them immediately by elected chaps and chapesses chosen on a proportional basis! But hold on: this means we are still going to the political class - asking it to renew its grip on parliament. And if the new second chamber is elected from a party list system, then its selection will be entirely at the behest of the party machines.

We are going to be replacing one half of our parliament in the 21st century. Let's think in a fresh way about how we do this. The starting point must be - what kind of Commons do we want? Only when we know what the main chamber should be like can we decide what the upper house should do in relationship to it. An obvious point.

In my view, the Commons should be the only place that originates legislation. The Upper house, to be brief, should scrutinise and assess it. It should not be an equal legislature,

This would then permit us to bring deliberative processes into the Lords to asses what the Commons has passed. In a book I wrote with Peter Carty I called this the 'Athenian Option'. Does the proposed legislation make sense and can regular people understand it? What could be better than a jury system for deciding this? Is it coherent and likely to achieve what it aims to do? Likewise, regular people, a cross-sample of us, given time and allowed to question experts in a structured fashion, can come to good answers.

To put it another way, why get rid of unaccountable Bishops of the Established Church only to replace them with Bishops of the Political Parties, when even more people are leaving party politics than are leaving the churches?

We have to re-think and then re-fresh our relationship with our legislature, not bureaucratise it.

Of course, you could say, why not have open political elections to the Lords not based on party tickets, with say, five person constituencies, STV election and all candidates having to be personal not party tickets? But if you did this you would produce a second chamber that was clearly more democratic than the Commons, and this would then undermine it.

If you believe that we need party politics to tackle the big issues (even if we need much reformed parties) and that these should be represented in the Commons or the primary chamber, then you have to have a less democratic second chamber playing a lesser, scrutinising role.

What I am saying is beef up the Commons but do not allow the parties to also control the upper chamber. It will only undermine, not strengthen democracy.


(c) Anthony Barnett is a founder of openDemocracy (www.opendemocracy.net/) and plays a leading role in the blog debate forum OurKingdom (http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom). He was the first director of Charter 88 from 1988 to 1995 and co-director of the Convention on Modern Liberty - with which Ekklesia was involved as one of a range of partners - in 2008-9. Anthony is a leading political commentator and has contributed to a wide range of magazines and journals, including the New Statesman, for which he recently penned 'Hang 'em high with this election' (http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2010/03/labour-brown-british-bri...). He has written, edited or co-edited a number of books on geopolitical, constitutional and democratic issues.

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