Monday, March 12, 2007

Lord Giddens speaks

My bete noir and subject of my incredibly tedious university dissertation, Anthony Giddens, has an interesting piece on Comment is Free today about the pending debate and vote in the House of Lords about the reform of the House of Lords.

Giddens feels pessimistic about the chances of a majority of the Lords supporting anything except a wholly appointed House but although he is clearly in favour of reform he still doesn't want to go the whole hog and have a 100% elected chamber. It's these arguments, about holding back, I want to quickly address here today.

I think he is essentially making three points.

Firstly that a House of appointees has a range of expertise to scrutinise legislation that an elected house would not have. Well, to that I'd have to say that the House of Commons is packed full of lawyers, doctors, teachers, academics and people with all kinds of skills. Unfortunately that does not necessarily mean they want to pass worth while legislation.

It seems to me that Parliament as a whole has to debate a range of topics so diverse that it would be impossible to ensure that the necessary expertise was always present. That's why I'd be in favour of allowing "guest speakers" or "expert panels" to make contributions direct to the House as and when required (probably on invitation of a certain number of elected members).

After all if we start to select which experts are necessary and which not then we end up with a second chamber that has bishops in it but no travellers, high court judges but no seafarers. And just perhaps high court judges and bishops will end up voting on subjects to which their expertise (if any) has no bearing but conforms with an out dated and elitist pattern that such types may well adhere to. Witness fox hunting and the equalisation of the age of consent.

Giddens' second argument I find much more perplexing. A fully elected house would have *too much* democratic legitimacy (and therefore be a threat to the House of Commons). Well, I think democratic legitimacy is a good thing, not a bad one. There are plenty of countries around the world that have fully elected second chambers without the sky crashing in around their heads. You don't hear people from these countries saying "If only our second chamber wasn't so... so... legitimate." If we're going to aim to move towards a democratic society let's not leave the mud on our boots from when we were traipsing around in the undemocratic wilderness. Have some courage.

The last point Giddens has to make is probably the one I have most sympathy with. That by making appointments independently it allows the second chamber to step out of the party politics system. However, if it is a diversity of voices that we require perhaps electing the Lords on a regional PR system so the smaller parties and independents with minority support actually get represented in the House.

Indeed, House of Lords reform is also an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and introduce an electoral method that allows parties with significant electoral support, but no decisive majority in a particular town, to get a voice and thereby help break up the stifling neoliberal consensus.


Peter said...

The advantage of electing a chamber is that it is accountable to the public. The disadvantage is that fear of deselection by the party or being voted out by the public leads to a culture of conformism and brown-nosing in politics.

The converse is true of an unelected chamber (unaccountable but free-thinking).

What I like about the house of lords is that somebody has a seat there for life - so they can maintain their integrity when scrutinising legislation.
It is only the second chamber, so lack of accountability is less important than being good at what it does.

The House of Lords actually works pretty well as it is - it provides real scrutiny of government legislation and is more independent of the party whip - it frequently forces the government to rethink bad legislation - particularly on civil liberties.

Jim Jay said...

It's certainly true that in comparison to the ghastly party whip careerist mess that is the commons the lords does appear to have voices of sanity.

However, I think that's because of the paucity of the commons rather than the objective sanity of the lords. I really dislike the idea of peers for life which may mean that the person in question is not bound by careerist concerns but certainly does not make them accountable to the people.

The problem is that the lords have blocked legislation that were part of the election manifesto of the winning party so when, for instance, thjey wanted to block equalisation of the age of consent there was no element of "scrutiny" about this - they just didn't like gay people.

With PR we can break up the chamber, and introduce a more diverse range of voice not under the control of the PM.

a very public sociologist said...

Should we be surprised that Giddens is seeking a 'third way'?

/Gets coat.

studentmedic said...

I just wonder whether an upper chamber elected on a PR basis would mean it is pointless to carry on campaigning for PR in elections to the house of commons...

Jim Jay said...

Or it could embedd the idea that PR is a more democratic form that FPTP. If its going to be elected then it should be, in my view, under PR.

UPDATE: The Lords have made their views known see here on BBC They want nothing but 100% appointed. Tough.