Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Straw bales out on democracy

Jack Straw, that republican, Brownite firebrand, has put forward a white paper outlining proposals for the House of Lords [1]

Get rid of her and allThere has been pressure for some time to introduce a semblance of democratic process into the second chamber of Parliament, and the government, which has tinkered a little bit here and there and kept it's foot firmly on the break, is finally giving a little in the hope that a bit of democracy will fall stall a lot of it.

Straw wants to cut the number of peers, have a whole 50% of the Lords elected (once every 15 years) cutting the number of cronies and backhanders in half. Straw justified the compromise by saying "time and time again, the fundamental reform of the House of Lords has failed because, for some, the best has become the enemy of the good".

Of course, as a white paper, this means its still in the ideas stage and a long way off actually getting enacted, if it ever does. I've always been a bit of a fan of the Billy Bragg system that elects the Lords from regional lists using the general election vote as its base. This way there is no extra voting to annoy the busy working public and the Lords becomes fully elected.

The BBC reports a surv
ey that says that "40% [of the British public] wanted a mixture of elected and appointed members, and 42% wanted the second chamber to be fully elected." Which doesn't leave many satisfied with the current arrangement of an elite gang of appointees and hereditary peers.

Mr Bragg considers his plans for the countryHowever, I had a dream the other night. The kind of dream I should keep to myself because it reveals, if there was an doubt, exactly how boring I am. I dreamt that local councils elected one member of the second chamber each. When I woke up I thought, "that's not such a terrible idea really is it"?

There is a real problem in this country in that power has shifted away from the localities into the center. For twenty or thirty years the strength of local councils in comparison to central government has been consistently undermined, leaving the local council very much the junior partner, even when making local decisions.

What if councils elected someone to represent them in the Lords? They could be recallable as and when the council decides, and this would give a real shift back towards the regions without burdening the public with more politicians. You could cut the number of Lords (who'd have to be renamed) down to about a hundred at the same time, to clean it all up a bit. It might even boost voter turnout in local elections.

Some people argue that it's handy having the top of the legal establishment in the second chamber, as they do pass laws after all. Personally I see no reason why we couldn't call them in for advise, after all they aren't elected and therefore don't express the will of the people in even a distorted form, but there's no reason why expert advise could not be sought as and when.

It was just a dream of course but, you know, it's one that has some appeal and unlike Straw's proposals would cut out the possibility of the Prime Minister selling political honours once and for all. not that he'd do that sort of thing you understand, he's a straight kind of guy.

Update: Jack Straw makes his case in CiF


Matt Sellwood said...

>I've always been a bit of >a fan of the Billy Bragg >system that elects the >Lords from regional lists >using the general >election vote as its >base. This way there is >no extra voting to annoy >the busy working public >and the Lords becomes >fully elected.

Really?? I must say I don't like either of your dreams much on this one, Jim. The Bragg option would use a FPTP election as a baseline, which would clearly disadvantage minority voices in favour of large parties - while your council option would again mean that (for example) Oxfordshire would send a Tory to the Lords despite Oxford as a town having no elected Tory representation on any level whatsoever.

Minority political rights have to be the order of the day. I would like to see a PR regional list system (all seats in the Lords elected), but with the added caveat that all parties have to select their candidates as the Greens do - i.e. the regional membership and affiliates decide the order of the list, not central office.

Never happen, of course!


a very public sociologist said...

Do we really need a second chamber though? In bourgeois democracies they've always been about putting checks and balances on the democratic will of the unruly mob. Why is abolition not an option?

Charlie Pottins said...

There was a time when I might have agreed with you about local councils. But that was when local councils like Clay Cross, and Lambeth where I used to live stood up for public service and resisted government. Going further back, before my time, some were pioneering, even heroic(Poplar).
I won't open up the whole controversy over what went wrong, and who did what, or where some of the individuals ended up (like MP for Barking).
But looking around at councils in more recent years, their record is to say the least uninspiring. A friend who used to work for Islington was telling me last night how their jobs were cut, and he had to reapply for his, only to hear that the Lib Dems had taken over and decided to ditch the whole department.
In Brent the Tory councillors managed to get our trades council Grunwick commemoration leaflets banned from local public libraries, and the Lib Dem majority have decided to revive Labour's discredited City Academy plans for a new school in Wembley sponsored by a property company.
Elsewhere local councils have been tamely following Thatcher/Blairism and privatising everything. As I remarked at a Labour meeting last year on party history, it's ironic to think that left-wing socialists once sneered at municipal "gas and water socialism" - now only the Left suggests these services should be back in public ownership.
As for schools, which New Labour
says local councils aren't fit to run, is it any wonder working people then say if the council is so useless why should we bother to go out voting?
I'm inclined to agree with the comrade who asked why we need an upper house. But if we're to have an elected one, why base it on local constituencies? There was a time when union leaders queued to kneel and feel the monarch's sword on their shoulder, but how about voting them in by union?
Then again, brings me to another issue. It's no good fiddling with the deckchairs on the Titanic British institutions. If we want to make this country modern and democratic we should get rid of the monarchy, and while we are at it, disestablish the Church of England.

Jim Jay said...

matt: it would necessarily have to be county councils... that would be some of the fine detail my dream didn't go into.

something more proportional is where we agree... I suspect I'm just unsure I want more elections.

very public: perhaps you're right about the second chamber, although the effect during blair's rule has consistently been to restrain his most authoritarian tendencies.

except on the hunting of gay foxes.

Charlie: it's true that many councils have an uninspiring record but to take one example - the privatidsation of council housing - councils have been required by the odpm to look at the ir housing for the decent homes standard (2010) and forced to justify why they don't privatise, and if they fail a ballot they need to go back and try again - so much of what local councils do is dominated by the centre... I'd like to see that reversed.

GraemeMcIver said...

I'm with a very public sociologist on this- it's a minor revising chamber which we probably don't need. Problem with having it democratically elected is that then it feels it has some sort of mandate and we end up with a bicameral system which has always been a method of trammeling democracy. All power to the Commons!

Jim Jay said...

Well, that's an interesting and useful point about bicameral system - although the opportunity to adopt a PR system for the second chamber could be a good step forwards in terms of democratising the country (although with abolition of the monarchy as charlie suggests)