The United Kingdom is one the oldest Parliamentary democracies on the planet. The Palace of Westminster is sometimes described as the “mother of parliaments” – though the man who coined that phrase, the great reformer John Bright, was in fact referring to England not its Parliament.
Though many democracies around the world have adopted elements of the Westminster system, there’s been little enthusiasm for one of its most prominent features – the House of Lords.
The ‘Upper House’ of the British Parliament is an anomaly – the product not so much of a long and illustrious history, but of a series of half-finished reforms. It is a botch-job and everyone knows it.
This doesn’t appear to be a problem for other countries. Almost without exception, the mature democracies of the world manage perfectly well with either an elected or no second chamber – and yet the British balk at both options.
We may not love the House of Lords, but we’ve had it for so long that its abolition would feel like an amputation. As for the other option, the creation of hundreds more elected, paid politicians would not be welcomed by a country heartily sick of politics.
The underlying failure on the part of House of Lords reformers is that they don’t have a credible answer to a basic question: What would be the point?
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To find a way forward, it is sometimes necessary to look backwards. For most of its history, the purpose of the House of Lords was to represent the nobility – not out of any sense of democratic legitimacy, of course, but because they were powerful. From the point of view of the king and the country, it was preferable to have the barons throwing their weight around in Parliament than on the battlefield.
Perhaps, this should also be the purpose of the House of Lords today. Instead of a glorified quango of the great and the good (or at least people a party leader owed a favour to), the Upper Chamber should be used to formally recognise and safely channel the true powers in the land.
In theory, it is democracy that legitimates authority and confers it upon the elected representatives of the people. In practice, politicians are subject to the influence of lobbyists – the unelected representatives of money and power. So here, offered not entirely without irony, is a modest proposal: let us turn the House of Lords into a House of Lobbyists.
The reformed House would operate on the basis of proportional representation – i.e. the seats allocated to each corporation would be proportional to the amount of tax it paid to the British state. The most efficient tax avoiders – and I’m especially thinking of you here, tech giants – would therefore pay a very direct political price. If a corporation or industry wanted more seats in the chamber, they’d have to pay more tax. In short, no representation without taxation – and you can’t say fairer than that.
(By the way, while the biggest companies would have one or more seats to their name, smaller enterprises would be allowed to secure seals through their chosen umbrella bodies.)
The allocation of seats would also take into account state aid: various subsidies, grants etc from the state being subtracted from the taxes paid by the recipients to the state. This might require some industries to suffer negative representation – i.e. the appointment of members of the new House to act against their interests.
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Every few years, the allocations would be recalculated – with membership of the chamber shifting over time to reflect the changing fortunes of the business world. If, however, a business went bankrupt between recalculations then there would have to be a by-election. Well, more of an auction really: the seat being sold off to the highest bidder.
For every seat allocated to it, a corporation would be entitled to ennoble a lobbyist of its choice – whose title would have to reveal his or her allegiance. Imagine, if you will, an entirely notional scenario in which Barry Scott of TV advertising fame were elevated to the peerage. He would sit in the House of Lobbyists as Lord Scott of Cillit Bang or, perhaps, as Lord Reckitt Benckiser Plc. Thus, if his lordship were to speak in, say, a debate on, say, the regulation of household cleaning products, his interest in the matter would be clear to all concerned. This would be a much more transparent system than the actual House of Lords, where one has to keep track of non-executive directorships and various other interests to understand where lordly loyalties currently lie.
The reformed upper chamber would have no more powers than the existing of Lords – except one: only members of the House of Lobbyists would be allowed to lobby elected politicians and civil servants. Lobbying by a non-member would be a criminal offence. Naturally, members would be allowed a limited number of ‘parliamentary aides’ to assist them in their lobbying duties, but these would be registered and, of course, paid for by the corporations they represent.
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As for meetings between ennobled lobbyists and ministers / senior officials, these would be registered as being either open-door or closed-door. All open-door meetings would be streamed on the internet and a transcript published in Hansard. Closed-door meetings on the other hand would be entirely private; however, the ministers and officials participating in them would be forbidden from subsequently taking a job with the organisations represented on the other side of the table.
As with the by-elections mentioned above, time for meetings in ministerial diaries would be auctioned-off – a much fairer and above board way of allocating this precious resource. The proceeds would, of course, go to straight to the public purse, more than recouping the cost of the complementary tea and biscuits. An officially sanctioned system of ‘cash for questions’ would be another money spinner.
By now you may be asking yourself whether I’m serious about any of this. The answer, of course, is not very.
The proposals I’ve outlined above would amount to a system of institutionalised influence-peddling at the very heart of our democracy. But how much worse would it be than what we’ve got now?