1. Governance
January 21, 2020

Don’t just move the Lords to Leeds – replace it with a Citizens’ Assembly

By Adam Lent

House of Lords reform is back! Rebecca Long Bailey has made the issue the centrepiece of her leadership campaign, calling for the House to be replaced with an elected senate. Meanwhile, the government has been floating the idea of moving the chamber outside of London possibly to York or Birmingham.

Both ideas are mooted as an attempt by our leaders to re-establish trust with a population that is deeply frustrated by Westminster shenanigans. But measured against that criteria neither will work. 

The evidence is strong that millions feel cut out of the debates and processes that shape the big decisions that affect their lives. It is that sense of marginalisation that was exploited very effectively by the Leave campaign to win the EU referendum and which has formed a leitmotif of Boris Johnson’s march to power ever since.

Moving the Lords to a more northerly location clearly does nothing substantive to make citizens feel they are being heard. It has symbolic value, which is not entirely to be dismissed, but little more than that. 

Replacing the current ragbag of aristocrats, bishops, ex-MPs and worthies with an elected chamber is, at least, a more serious change. But the idea is akin to suggesting that the solution to antibiotic resistance is the prescription of more antibiotics. It fails to recognise that people are already very hostile to the House of Commons. Merely doubling the number of chambers crammed full of professional politicians representing widely unloved parties will only deepen the impression of a polity that is more about the pursuit of personal ambition and self-interest than the representation of the people.

For Lords reform to be a serious attempt at listening, inspiration needs to be taken from the local level. Councils also struggle with a crisis of trust and legitimacy.

That is why a growing number are turning to forums such as citizens’ assemblies. Done well, this deliberative approach is proving a powerful complement to the more traditional representative structure of a council. It brings the voices of residents into the heart of decision-making, but in a far more considered and consensual fashion than the fraught climate in which politicians usually engage with voters – something recently acknowledged by Jess Phillips in her six-point plan to restore trust in politics.

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The intriguing possibility emerges, therefore, of a two-chamber legislature: one based on elected representation made up of MPs, and the other on deliberative democracy made-up of ‘ordinary’ citizens. In effect, the House of Lords would be replaced by a permanent citizens’ assembly guaranteeing the general population a direct, consensual voice at the heart of political decision-making to complement the representative and adversarial traditions of the Commons.

Of course, what exactly this national citizens’ assembly might look like would need to be carefully determined. Would participants be chosen randomly as in jury service, or might they be drawn from a network of local citizens’ assemblies? How long would participants be expected to take part? What expert support would they require and how would that be provided? And would they simply take on the powers of the current House of Lords or would that require reform as well? This detail is important and probably not best left to Parliament which has a history of watering down constitutional change proposals to homeopathic levels of dilution. It is a job, in fact, for a citizens’ assembly.

This will all sound very radical to Westminster ears but radicalism is precisely what is required. A deep frustration with politics has been allowed to fester for far too long. The result is a spreading disenchantment with democracy as a whole and the gravitation towards polarised and aggressive extremes.

The UK cannot be allowed to follow the example of Hungary and Poland and see its liberal democratic institutions gradually degraded for want of imagination and courage on the part of those who actually care about those bodies. In short, bold moves rather than tweaks are required to regain the trust of an angry population. 

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network.

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