Richard Askwith: People's peers can rescue politics

It's time ordinary members of the public got their hands on the levers of power

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There is a simple solution to the crisis of trust that is crippling the House of Commons: reform the House of Lords. Illogical? Not if the reform is daring enough. For example: let's replace the hereditary peers– and ideally the life peers as well – with ordinary members of the public, selected at random like jurors and compelled to serve for fixed but well-paid terms of, say, four years.

The effects could be breathtaking. The allegedly intractable problems of Lords reform would, for a start, be solved at a stroke. The new intake of the upper house would be fully and fairly representative, reflecting the make-up of the electorate not just in age, race, gender and geography but also in wealth, education, class, taste, prejudice and aspiration (even the meek and unambitious would have a voice).

It would have true democratic legitimacy (as juries do), but not of a kind to challenge the legitimacy or supremacy of the Commons. It would be independent of party politics, and, since its members could not seek re-election, its focus could be on the public good rather than the retention of power. But the greatest benefit would be to Parliament as a whole. Suddenly, the entire electorate would have theoretical access to at least some of the levers of power.

At the moment, it is widely believed that "they" (the politicians) are a bunch of cynical time-servers who care more about self-advancement and party advantage than about the interests of "us", the ordinary people – and who have rigged the system to ensure that we have no practical say in how we are governed.

The expenses scandal has reinforced this belief. But if you create the remote but actual possibility that any British adult could be required to play an active role in running the country, you give everyone a new stake in the political process. The idea of "them" and "us" ceases to apply. We are all, to some extent, "them".

Selection of politicians by lot (also known as "sortition") is a familiar idea to those on the fringes of political theory. It worked well enough in ancient Greece and, to an extent, in ancient Israel and mediaeval Italy; and it has been proposed more than once in the long-drawn-out charade of Lords reform (not least by Peter Carty and Anthony Barnett, whose 1998 Demos pamphlet, "The Athenian Option", was republished last year).

But political grown-ups with a stake in the party system have always given it the shortest shrift. Lord Wakeham's 600-megabyte report on Lords reform dismissed it in a single paragraph, declaring tartly that random selection "would not deliver sufficient people with the specific personal qualities and expertise that would be desirable" and that it "would be unlikely to secure members with sufficient individual or collective authority ... [for] the House of Commons to take the second chamber's concerns seriously".

You can see why career politicians hate the idea of giving ordinary people a foothold in Westminster. Just imagine the idiocies, the chaos, the naïvety (of which, some would say, this article is an example). It simply wouldn't do. But that is what ruling minorities have always said about proposals to extend democracy. Is it really rational to reject a proposal for democratic reform on the grounds that it would give a greater role in government to ordinary people?

Scarcely more logical is the objection that a system of random selection would be impractical. Why should it be? Members of the reformed house could be chosen from the electoral roll exactly as jurors are. They would serve for a fixed period; would serve compulsorily (just as millions of people in democracies have been compelled to devote periods of their lives to military service); would be allowed to do much of their deliberating remotely (hardly difficult in the age of Second Life, Facebook and Twitter); and would be handsomely rewarded for their services (think of it as a wised-up version of the lottery). Part of the cost could be defrayed by savings on MPs' additional cost allowances.

But it is the principle, not the practicalities, that makes the idea play badly in the corridors of power. We'd find a way if we wanted to. But there are too many movers and shakers who abhor the thought of giving all sorts of undesirable, inarticulate, common people ideas above their station. They forget that, while there are indeed drawbacks to direct democracy, there are also drawbacks to the unchallenged supremacy of the party machines. Think how many millions of lives have been ruined by over-powerful parties (Communist, National Socialist, Ba'ath, you name it); think how many rotten MPs are rotten because they strive to serve their party rather than their country. Even the purest elective democracies tend inexorably towards oligarchy – that's why Washington is full of lobbyists. The solution is a rude, cleansing blast of unfiltered people power. If either main party were bold enough, promising to introduce an element of sortition to the Lords could be a dramatic but low-risk way of channelling the current tide of dangerous public anger into something that made a difference but not too much difference. Yes, the effects could be messy, but the Commons would remain in control. And, unlike the regulatory "revolution" preferred by the Westminster villagers, it would leave the sovereignty of Parliament intact.

It might also work rather well. These new "common peers", having had power thrust upon them rather than having sought it, would, like Plato's Philosopher Rulers, be uncorrupted by political ambition. They would have no incentive to pander to the mood swings of the electorate or the machinations of the whips. They would actually be the people, rather than the manipulators of the people whom parliamentary democracy normally favours. Could their involvement in an allegedly democratic political process really do much harm?

Lloyd George derided the Lords as "a body of 500 men chosen at random from among the ranks of the unemployed". But what is so wrong with that? Expand the selection-base to include the entire electorate rather than just the aristocracy, and you would have a microcosm of our society. In Other words, a true house of our peers.

r.askwith@independent.co.uk

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