The social attitudes survey has gone to my head, a bit. Everyone sees in it what they want to see, anyway, so I choose to see: no-one's that fussed about gay people anymore, and we'd all like to pay less tax, thanks. Finally I'm riding the zeitgeist (baby). Fetch me my beads, I'm off to Tory conference.
Surfing this wave, I'm going to have another go at resurrecting my perennially unpopular policy about the House of Lords, which also happens to be one of the few original political thoughts I've ever had. Its last airing was at the excellent Dragon's Den at last year's conference, where it attracted the support of approximately zero of the audience voters (never let me be accused of courting populism, or even popularity) [And you wonder why you can't get interviewed for a seat - Ed]. The trouble is, however much everyone laughs at it, I can't get the elegant simplicity of its central idea out, as Kylie might say, of my head.
So some propositions, which I hold:
- A good legislature has an upper chamber, the purpose of which is to revise legislation from the lower house.
- The upper chamber doesn't require to initiate legislation, only to review and recommend revisions to legislation proposed by the elected lower chamber.
- Selecting members of the upper chamber, however you arrange this selection, is patronage, and patronage is what I will call an invalid mechanism for this purpose. By invalid I mean that such a body lacks democratic legitimacy. Why should my life be governed by laws passed by someone who became a Lord though the bunging to Blair of a few million squid? However you arrange the selection - the personal gift of the Prime Minister, or a Committee of the Great And The Good (which means Baroness Greenfield and Helena Kennedy), you have the same unsatisfactory outcome: a chamber that's there largely because of who they knew, not what they did.
- Electing the upper chamber, however you arrange the electoral mechanism, will lead to inevitable deadlock with the lower chamber, at some point, because election, through universal suffrage, is a valid mechanism, and all the 'rules' and 'principles' and 'unwritten agreements' in the world will not change this. If I am elected to one chamber in parliament, and you are elected to another, we have the same (democratic, legitimate) basis on which to interfere with that parliament's proposed legislation.
What, then, are valid mechanisms for choosing a body of citizens in order to arrive at a verdict on proposed legislation which will have a binding outcome on the rest of us? The obvious mechanism is election - but see point 4 above. So we're stuck, then; and more or less this is why House of Lords reform has never progressed beyond an agreement to rid the chamber of the hereditary peers.
But there is another valid mechanism for choosing a body for legislative deliberation. It is used throughout the country on a daily basis to pass verdict on questions which, to the actors concerned, lead to far more important outcomes than whether or not a Bill should be revised before it goes for Royal Assent. The principle is random selection, and this valid mechanism is used to populate every jury in the land. So my proposal: abolish the upper chamber of patronage, and replace it, on a Bill by Bill basis, with a random selection of citizens, tasked with providing legislative scrutiny.
There's an inductive validity to the answers produced by random selection which goes way beyond its intuitive appeal. It comes as an answer to the question "Why is a jury legitimate?" and the various follow-on questions, such as "How likely is a jury to make the right decision?" and of course "How many people should there be in a jury in order to achieve acceptable risk regarding the probability of a wrong decision?". I would refer anyone interested in the socio-historical evolution of the acceptance of jury validity to Ian Hacking's book The Taming of Chance (this wonderful book deals with one of the most interesting aspects of western civilisation, the growth of probabilism and the rise of the statistical 'law') - chapters 11 and 12 describe the thinking of Laplace and Poisson which gave, in effect, validity to the jury.
So, if a random selection of twelve people can be shown to be a valid instrument for determining the outcome in a criminal trial, it follows (with probability one, I would say) that a random selection of X (say) people can be a valid instrument for determining the outcome of the 'trial' of proposed legislation.
Theory is fine, but how would you do it in practice? Here are some thoughts. I don't suggest selecting 1000 (say) citizens for a five year term: this would be impracticable, if the idea of serving in the Citizen Chamber is to prove acceptable. I suggest we select a much smaller number of citizens, to act as jury on a Bill by Bill basis.
An objection often raised is: how could random people be expected to be expert on any particular legislative topic? I do not propose that they should, any more than I was an expert on the problems faced by new immigrants in Bethnal Green, when I sat on a jury a few years ago. I propose that the parties in the Commons should nominate Advocates to make their case to the jury in the upper chamber. Amongst other benefits, this means that the Upper Chamber has access to experts for any particular topic. (This is an improvement on the current situation, where an "Expert" like Alan Sugar is made a peer - for life - because the patronage committee, sorry, the Government, want access to his "expertise" for one particular issue).
For an education bill, for example, Conservatives might ask Chris Woodhead to act as Chief Advocate, putting the case for reform to the upper chamber - reform encapsulated in the Bill the government is seeking to pass. The Opposition Labour front bench in the Commons could propose the head of a teachers' trades union to put their case. Each side could produce evidence for and against the Bill. Each chief advocate could produced a panel of experts to help with their case - including (why not?) government ministers and their shadows, or backbenchers, or members of select committees, and even Baroness Greenfield or Helena Kennedy.
After reviewing the evidence, the upper "chamber" could then vote in one of two ways: Ready for Royal Assent, or Send Back to Commons for Revision. Such a process would almost certainly increase the power of the Select Committee (and hence the backbencher) at the cost of the Executive, but the (unelected) upper chamber could never permanently overthrow the will of the elected commons. It could make a government pause and re-consider. In this way we might see better thought-through legislation.
There would have to be fewer Bills, of course. What a pity. But I suspect we would not suffer, were we to spend longer in deliberation over a lesser number of laws.
Go on then - have a laugh, as everyone does when I propose this device as a replacement for the House of Lords. But tell me if there's not the glimmer of something, here, about a credible augmentation of our legislative revision and scrutiny procedures, through the implementation of some very non-Darwinian random selection.
Post-script. A few weeks ago the very kind Guy Aitchison from the Power 2010 organisation (follow @GuyAitchison on Twitter) invited me to see their first big deliberative poll - a random selection of the population discussing and proposing constitutional amendments. I was too sick with the flu to stay for long, but the people I chatted to at lunch - a random selection of the citizenry - were not fazed by their task and were pleased to be involved with something that had a theoretical chance of affecting legislation. The Power 2010 website is worth a visit (and a vote), even if I remain totally opposed to any attempt to make candidate MPs sign up to any pledge from any lobby group.