This article forms part of a series, Radically rethinking our democracy, in which we asked contributors to propose bold answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?
When my short book, People Power, was published in 2018, I was invited onto BBC2’s Daily Politics to discuss my proposal for radical House of Lords reform.
“It’s a lovely idea,” began Jo Carney, referring to my suggestion that members of Parliament’s upper chamber should be selected at random like jurors. “But it’s never going to happen, is it?”
Since all the preceding items in the programme had drastically overrun, that was pretty much the entirety of the interview. It has been rankling ever since: partly because my unmade rejoinders keep improving with time, but mainly because subsequent events have doubled and redoubled the force of my arguments.
My core points were simple: that without urgent, radical action to boost Parliament’s perceived legitimacy, the survival of representative democracy in the UK cannot be guaranteed; and that the simplest way to fix this would be a radical remaking of Parliament’s most flagrantly unrepresentative chamber.
Can anyone seriously doubt the first point today? And, if not, does anyone have a better, more achievable suggestion than the second?
The crisis in politics is perhaps more obvious now than it was in early 2018, although it was pretty obvious then. Respect for our representatives in Westminster has collapsed. The main parties barely bother to disguise their habit of putting their own interests ahead of the nation’s. Social media and the slapdash use of referendums have created an unprecedented appetite for what could loosely be described as direct democracy.
Previously voiceless millions have been empowered to make their views known, unmediated. Increasingly, they expect to be heeded. Well-funded demagogues fan resentments for their own purposes, and MPs cannot or will not resist. “People are tired of experts,” said Michael Gove. But it’s worse than that: millions are tired of Westminster politicians too.
Can anything be done? There is a strong case for reforming the Commons and/or the voting system, but the chances of Parliament authorising such reform in the foreseeable future seem negligible. The need for Lords reform, on the other hand, is almost universally acknowledged. Its members are unelected, unaccountable to the electorate, and no more representative than the Garrick Club. Why would you not tear it up and start again? Hence my focus on the Lords in People Power.
My proposed solution was deliberately broad in its brushstrokes. The current peers would be replaced by 400 People’s Peers, randomly conscripted and weighted to be a small, representative sample of the electorate as a whole. Service would be “compulsory, well-paid and prestigious”, perhaps even involving ermine and titles.
Those selected would sit for four-year terms, including a six-month training period. The outgoing great-and-good would have the option of paid employment as trainers or specialist advisers for their randomly selected replacements. Ideally, the chamber would continue to benefit from the ex-peers’ expertise and experience. But, having no democratic mandate to represent us, those ex-peers would not deliberate or vote on our behalf.
That was about it. The details are arbitrary: it’s a sketch, not a blue-print. Its purpose was to win support for a general principle. I accept that my proposed system isn’t perfect. What matters is that the existing system is dreadful.
Those who work in Westminster struggle to grasp this. They think the current set-up works quite well. “What about all that expertise?” they say. “The courteous, well-informed debates? The well-established conventions of back-and-forth between Lords and Commons?”
But none of that matters if the governed don’t accept the chamber’s legitimacy. If its influence can be dismissed – as it can – as the meddling of “unelected peers”, its collective wisdom counts for nothing. If you really believe that Parliament as currently configured is functioning well, you need to get out more.
If we did decide to replace the House of Lords with a chamber based on ‘sortition’ (that is, the selection of representatives by lot), there would be no shortage of experts capable of fine-tuning the system to make it viable. Groups currently working to give sortition a bigger role in UK politics include – to choose just a few – the Sortition Foundation, Unlock Democracy, Constitutional Reform, A Citizens’ House in Parliament, Compass, All Hands on Doc.
Globally, the sortition movement is vast. Wise and knowledgeable authors whose writings on the subject I recommend include: JKB Sutherland, Nicholas Gruen, Brett Hennig and Anthony Barnett (who made a proposal much like mine for Demos more than 20 years ago).
The workings, strengths and weaknesses of deliberative assemblies and citizens’ juries have been exhaustively studied over several decades by countless academics and institutions, from the pioneering professors James S. Fishkin and Robert C. Luskin (of Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin respectively), to the Electoral Reform Society, the Centre for the Study of Democracy, and UCL’s widely admired Constitution Unit.
Wanting to incorporate a randomly-chosen assembly into national politics may not be a mainstream position. But it is intellectually respectable.
My purpose in writing People Power was to nudge that respectable idea a little nearer to the centre of national debate. I quote with pride Alex Burghardt MP’s verdict on my book: “It’s not as crazy as it sounds.” (By my standards, that’s a five-star review.)
But the proposal at People Power’s heart deserves to be taken more seriously than that. Traditional politics is in crisis. The collision between direct democracy and representative democracy has left Parliament floundering and ineffectual. Yet a proposal to take radical corrective action is considered crazy, while wanting to carry on as before is considered sane. That’s the sad irony of foreseeable disasters. Evasive action seems worthwhile only if you leave your mental comfort zone – or when it’s too late.
In fact, since my book was published, there has been a surge in mainstream support for giving randomly-selected citizens a role in national politics. (The Daily Politics, by contrast, has disappeared.) The proposed role has been a specific one: breaking the deadlock over Brexit. But the thinking is much the same.
Nearly 80,000 people have signed an online petition calling for a Citizens Assembly on Brexit. Their case has been made by heavyweight thinkers and politicians – and even, once, in the Commons. Right now, their cause seems like a lost one – although it would be foolish to rule anything out where Brexit is concerned. Yet sustained exposure is gradually drawing the idea of sortition-based politics into the mainstream.
It is telling that a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is a key demand of the striking schoolchildren of the Extinction Rebellion.
What all these enthusiasts appreciate is that consulting the public in a sortition-based deliberative assembly is quite different from casually asking voters for their views in polls and referendums. Like jurors in court, participants in such assemblies are focused and informed. They interrogate evidence and examine conflicting views. No one whips them to put party before country. Trained conveners ensure that all are heard. The emphasis is on discussion, not winning; shifts in opinion are common. And the conclusions, like juries’ verdicts, are generally accepted as fair.
Everything we know about such bodies shows that they tend to heal division rather than exacerbate it. The discussions are conversations, not confrontations. In an age of political polarisation, this is precious. Parliament is pre-occupied with party-political arm-wrestling; public political discourse consists mostly of mud-slinging. The combined effect is endless political mud-wrestling: dirty, violent, unedifying and – if continued too long – dangerous.
Political traditionalists usually object that a randomly chosen cross-section of society would produce a ‘lower calibre’ of person than the processes that provide the current members of the Commons and the Lords.
I don’t think this bears scrutiny: not just because the calibre of many current members of Parliament is so obviously and embarrassingly low – or because, despite what people in Westminster think, the average citizen isn’t a moron – but because the main point of a democracy isn’t that it results in a nation being governed by its wisest members. Most democratic nations aren’t. But their systems of government work – when uncorrupted – because their decisions command popular consent.
In People Power, I quote approvingly the words of Dexter Perkins:
“The best wisdom is to be found in the collectivity, not because any member of the collectivity is himself as wise or as well informed or as disinterested as some notable individuals may be, but because the reconciliation of the wills, the aspirations, and the interests of all, even the prejudices of all, provides a more solid and enduring basis of action than the will, the aspiration, and the interest of any individual or any class.”
That, in one sentence, is the case for democracy. It is a merging of interests. Sadly, such a merging has barely featured in the UK’s recent contortions over Brexit. Democracy of a kind has been involved, but only the kind that divides. If you expect what follows to have an enduring basis, your appetite for far-fetched political ideas is stronger than mine.
The point of a Citizens’ Assembly isn’t to secure a particular outcome. It’s to detoxify politics, through a visibly fair mechanism that cannot be dismissed as an establishment stitch-up. With Brexit, it could have rebooted the entire seized-up process; in Westminster, it could restore the the credibility and perceived legitimacy of Parliament.
The economic fall-out from our Brexiting (hard, soft, fudged or reversed) will pass. Perhaps it will be less than some fear. But the political and social damage feels more permanent, and could prove disastrous if we cannot find the courage to address it. Is it really so crankish to consider seriously a mechanism that could set us on the path to healing?
Perhaps it is too late to bring that mechanism to bear on Brexit. Yet the need for detoxification remains. The political establishment is more hostile than ever to the idea of empowering randomly selected citizens: a trial programme of local citizens’ assemblies has just been radically scaled down. But I have yet to hear of a more sensible idea for achieving the healing we need.
People Power: Remaking Parliament for the Populist Age, by Richard Askwith (Biteback).
Click here to read our series of answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?