Lords Reform: Time for a Senate of the modern age?

The House of Lords is a bag of balls. We know this – you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone other than a foaming traditionalist who believes that having almost two-thirds of our country’s lawmakers being appointed, rather than elected, is a good idea.

The recent news about the latest bill for Lords Reform  — the latest in a line of small-scale tweaks — is the most exciting yet because it promises a large proportion of the seats to be democratically elected.

But do we need another set of politicians elected the same way as the Commons? Will the public even understand why they’re voting for two different representatives? Will they care? It’s hard enough to get people to turn out for elections when they’re only voting for one.

In many countries such as the USA and Ireland, the Upper House is called the Senate. This name comes from the Latin senex, which translates into English as elder. In modern usage, an elder is someone who has acquired deep knowledge of a subject or community, perhaps due to age (the historical definition) or perhaps just due to extraordinary experience.

The primary purpose of the Upper House in most bicameral systems, including the UK, is to apply specialist knowledge to bills and policy debated in the Lower House. Indeed, many of the Lords are specifically appointed because of their knowledge of law, religion or (to a lesser extent) subjects like science and history. (Many of them are currently not, also.)

We are a complicated mixed bag of a country, and a lot of the things that really matter in this modern world, like technology1, disability and immigration are not represented adequately in our Parliament. Reform is an opportunity to address this!

And here is how we could distinguish the Commons from the Lords in a fully democratized Parliament: representatives in the Lords should only be elected by the people they represent. For example, you could have Healthcare Lords who are elected only by healthcare professionals, Disability Lords who are only elected by disabled people, Immigration Lords who are only elected by immigrants, and so forth.

This isn’t de-voicing the rest of the populace on those issues — the Commons are still elected the same way, and they’re the ones who make the laws — it’s just delivering the power to slow bills and the power to suggest amendments into the hands of the people they affect hardest. One wouldn’t have to be disabled to be a Disability Lord, but one would have to be elected by disabled people.

Obviously, this would be a nightmare to implement (how do you decide if someone is Caribbean enough to vote for the Caribbean Lord or disabled enough to vote for the Disability Lord?) but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

What subjects or communities would you want to be represented by their own Lords?

Here are some thoughts I’ve had:

  • Immigration Lords
  • Disability Lords
  • Women’s Lords (a post that will hopefully one day be unnecessary, but right now women are still a marginalized group in politics)
  • LGBT Lords
  • Unemployment/low-income Lords
  • Family Lords
  • Lords of specific “British International” subcultures:
    • Caribbean Lords
    • Chinese Lords
    • Indian Lords
    • etc.
  • Lords of specific religious communities (we have some already):
    • Christian Lords
    • Muslim Lords
    • Sikh Lords
    • etc.
  • Lords of specific industries:
    • Science Lords
    • Healthcare Lords
    • Technology Lords
    • Education Lords
    • Environment Lords
    • Economy Lords
    • etc.
  • Media Lords
  • Sports Lords
  • Military Lords (dare we?)
  • Political Lords (elected by MPs and Councillors? Is that crazy?)
  • Law Lords (we have these already, but these would be elected ones)
  • What else?
  1. Does anyone in the industry think an opt-in porn block for ISPs is a sensible or ethical idea? []

4 Comments

  1. Phil Evans
    Jul 17, 2012

    There are certainly aspects of this idea I like (representation of groups elected by those groups) but I don’t think it’s workable for several reasons.

    First, how do you work out proportions of each type of Lord? You can’t do it by population, since while ~50% of the population are women, some of those women will also be LGBT Sikh MPs, for example. You will also have to represent CISGendered white males (despite their predominance in the Commons) to be truly representative.

    There are also voting issues – should our hypothetical LGBT Sikh MP get three votes, or do they have to pick which “hat” they’re voting with at each election? (“Sorry, you cannot be both gay and black, try again”)

    I do really like the core idea, but I think any attempt at implementation would just devolve into chaotic power struggles, sadly . . .

    • Rich
      Jul 17, 2012

      I’m not sure proportions of each type of Lord are very important unless debates are taken to the vote (are they at the moment in the Lords?) You could maybe allocate proportions of Lords based on the average non-experience of the elected members of the Commons? I agree it would be pretty hard to decide this stuff. But then, even rolling a die is better than what we have now…

      Regarding cisgendered white males: my point was to allow groups who are not well represented in the Commons to have a voice in slowing down or amending bills. Since cisgendered white males are prevalent in the Commons itself, I’m not sure why they would need specific representation in this reformed Lords.

      As for voting, I’d imagined that if one person is an LGBT Sikh MP, she would get a vote in each of the “constituencies” her membership of marginalized/specialist groups gives her – one vote for an LGBT Lord, one vote for a Sikh Lord, one vote for a Political Lord, etc. Voting has never been mandatory in this country, so I’d imagine people would only vote for the areas they felt needed extra representation.

      I’m still not sure about the whole idea myself, though!

  2. Alex
    Jul 17, 2012

    Nah I don’t like the idea of enforcing “balance” like this. I’m just hopeful that alongside the main parties we’ll get the Science List as a voting option.

    • Rich
      Jul 17, 2012

      Would you like to elaborate on why you don’t like enforced balance?

      Is your position that we (as a whole) voted for a bunch of white men who all studied politics/economics so we should consider their views representative of the public as a whole?

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