Not another one

I do despair of commentators who keep writing as if election of the second chamber is so obviously ‘democratic’ or esssential in a modern democracy, oblivious of the fact they are displaying an ignorance of the issue and certainly of the recent debate.  I have already drawn attention to one example.  Another appeared in last night’s edition of the Evening Standard.

In reviewing Peter Hennessy’s latest book, Distilling the Frenzy – in which Lord Hennessy argues against an elected House – Robert Fox writes that ‘In an era of of low polls, democratic deficits and regional tensions, it’s hard to argue for an unelected Upper House’.  As readers will know, it is no such thing.  There’s a perfectly rational, and indeed a democratic, case for assymetrical bicameralism of the sort we have.  One wonders if the writer has even bothered to think about what he is writing.  There are low polls.  Solution?  Introduce more elections.  Arguing the case for an elected chamber is something of a displacement activity.  It is the easy option, distracting from the real challenge of trying to identify and address why many people don’t vote in existing elections.  People who unthinkingly argue for an elected chamber are not offering a solution; they are part of the problem.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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9 Responses to Not another one

  1. Dean B says:

    To be fair, the government has put a Bill before parliament that is ignorant of the issue and of the recent debate, so one can hardly expect commentators to do much better.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B; To be fair to the serious press, the Government’s proposals are so bad that a good many commentators have grasped that fact and drawn attention to their shortcomings. Mind you, very few have picked up on the fact that the proposals are not for a 450-member House.

  2. Tom says:

    Not gonna lie I find this post a little bit short – why is an unelected second chamber better than the alternative? WHY? Cos at the moment I think I oppose the reforms as they are proposed but I don’t really understand why I think the current system is better.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Tom: We have the advantage of a second chamber that adds value to the political process and does so without challenging the core accountability at the heart of our political system. Democracy is how about how people choose to govern themselves. In a representative democracy, we choose government through elections and expect government to be accountable to the people for what they do in their name through elections. In this country, government is chosen through elections to the House of Commons and is collectively accountable to the people at the next election. There is just one entity – the party or parties in government – that is responsible for public policy. Electors are not only responsible for the choice of government but can hold that government to account at the next election if they disapprove of what it has done (or reward it with re-election if they approve). There is thus core accountability. The House of Lords does not get in the way of the answerability of government to electors. The Lords fulfils tasks that the elected House of Commons does not have the time or the political will, or sometimes the resources, to fulfil. This is notably so in the case of legislative revision. The House of Commons is ultimately responsible for approving the ends of legislation, giving assent to the measures that the government brings forward. The Lords does not contest that (and does not normally vote on the principle – the Second Reading – of a government Bill), but instead focuses on the means. It addresses the detail to see if it can be improved. It makes a large number of amendments each session and these overwhemingly are acceptable to the Commons. It thus adds value without affecting the accountability of government through the House of Commons to the people. It has been estimated that in terms of the detail of legislation, the Lords makes twice as much difference as the Commons.

      If you elect a second chamber, you challenge the core accountabilty without adding anything to the quality of the political process. Even employing the existing limited powers of the Lords, an elected second chamber could frustrate the government’s programme. An elected chamber may well not be content with the existing powers. It could affect the outcomes of public policy through doing deals with the Commons and we know from experience elsewhere that those deals are not likely to benefit electors, but rather political parties and interest groups. The problem then is there is no one body that is accountable collectively for the outputs of public policy. Electing the members of the second chamber is, in effect, to privilege the accountability of individual members (although under the Government’s proposals the individual representatives could not be held to account as they are not eligible for re-election) over the collective accountability of government. There is, in short, little to be gained through electing the second chamber, but a great deal to be lost.

      Hope that helps. I can provide links to further reading if that assists.

  3. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    This early evening when I went to see a premiere of the Nolan and Bale film Dark Knight I asked the manager (whom I have come to know fairly well) if I would get a discount if I were shot. He magnanimously proclaimed I would get a full refund.

    In the same way there are all sorts of systems to compensate for a malaise in both political theory and practice. But none are half so good as those fortunate and often deserving generations where all parts of a polity and society are functioning near optimum and struggling worthily with one another while still united in a healthy nationalism. I have risked my life for democracy and for other things on occasion and I do value it but a democratic House of Lords is simply a bad idea. The British, US, Spartan and many other fine constitutions are mixed and not all one thing. Till that is understood the rest is mere compensation for catastrophe….

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: Many thanks. The system in the UK does seem to come together effectively and it is not clear what benefit would derive from an elected second chamber; and, indeed, as people are increasingly realising, the Governmment’s proposals are particularly perverse.

  4. maudie33 says:

    It makes perfect sense to have more polls because of low turn out. Which I have come to believe is the way those in Parliament want to keep it. It is a safety net for failure.

    Interest in the the process would be stimulated by exposure to choice in real terms. The reason this country has had little success with voters numbers is related to little honest variety . Each party and each candidate is a facsimile which boils down to zero alternative prospect for any of us.

    To confirm this, all you have to do is look at how the old failed has beens of the past repeatedly return to the back rooms to promote more of their, unwanted by the public, policies. For some reason they continue to have the idea that this time they will be able to raise the fascinating and workable answer which will bring them the greatness they long for, but, like the old inept artist the picture gets more unpalatable as the strokes become deranged. As Mick Jagger quipped some many moons ago, there is nothing worse than an old stripper and little attraction in buying a ticket to see one.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maudie33: Except that your opening sentence is refuted by experience. Holding more elections for different bodies has not increased turnout. And have you addressed the electoral system proposed in the Goverment’s Bill? In what way would a regional list system energise the electorate? It hasn’t exactly done wonders for elections to the European Parliament. If the Government thought there would be a good turnout in elections for the second chamber, why do they not support a free-standing election, rather than linking it with elections to another body?

      • maudie33 says:

        Except that the internet access offered the citizens of this country was inundated with response to questions of what they wanted to have a referendum on. And this was seen as a threat to those inside and outside of government who make a great deal of tax payers money on keeping the status quo.

        Polls are simply another political manipulation in order to hoodwink the people when they question policy.

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