One of the key arguments in favour of an elected second chamber is that it would make the UK’s political system more democratic overall. However, an examination of the principles of representative democracy suggests that this is neither a necessary nor desirable reform for the House of Lords to fulfil its purpose, argues Adam Lovett.
The House of Lords is a peculiar institution. It’s large, with 781 members. Ninety-two of them are hereditary peers and (currently) 25 are bishops. One-hundred-and-forty-eight are independent crossbenchers, mainly appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Commission’s appointment process is rigorous. Those chosen have a “record of significant achievement,” “outstanding personal qualities,” and the “ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords.”
The remaining 516 peers are largely appointed by party leaders. Such leaders, it is fair to say, have a less rigorous appointment process than the Commission. Due to these appointments, about a quarter of appointees over the last decade (64) have been donors to political parties. Many party peers are political aides or grandees. The youngest peer – at thirty years old – has the sole distinction of having been special advisor to Boris Johnson. Party leaders sometimes appoint experts, but they regularly appoint loyalists to the House of Lords.
The case for an elected second chamber
The Labour Party’s current policy is to abolish the House of Lords in its current form and replace it with an elected chamber. In 2022, the Commission on the UK’s future, chaired by Gordon Brown, proposed replacing the Lords with a “new, democratically legitimate, second chamber of Parliament.” This proposal taps into the idea that legislators should be democratically elected. The idea is an old one. When the Commons took primacy over the Lords, with the Parliament Act 1911, its measures were meant to be temporary: the act’s preamble looked forward to later putting the Lords on a “popular” basis. There have been several attempts to do this in the intervening century. In 2007, for example, the Labour Government published a White Paper proposing a 50 per cent elected Lords. Later that year it ran a series of unwhipped votes on how the Lords should be constituted. A majority of 337 MPs voted for a wholly elected second chamber, with 224 against. In 2012, the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition advanced (and later withdrew) a bill proposing an 80 per cent elected chamber. In the associated White Paper, it claimed that “the fundamental democratic principle” is that “those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom those laws apply.” The idea that the Lords should be made more democratic is widespread.
Distinguishing procedures from outcomes
This idea is widespread but not, I think, plausible. The ideals behind it – the thought that democracy is especially valuable or legitimate – do not require that we make the House of Lords democratically elected.
To see this, we must think carefully about what makes democracy valuable. Rousseau once said that, “the people, being subject to the laws, ought to be their authors.” I think that this speaks to what makes representative democracy valuable. It is valuable for you to be author of your own life; for what happens to you to be a manifestation of the aims and goals you have for yourself. Similarly, it is valuable for you to be author of your political life; for government policy to manifest the aims and goals you have for your society. The former gives you personal autonomy while the latter gives you political autonomy. Representative democracy is valuable because it facilitates this second, democratic, kind of autonomy. When you elect someone because of their policy positions, and they go on to enact those policies, you can be the author of those policies. Representative democracy helps our will – the will of the people – manifest in our social and political affairs.
This value can be achieved only when there is a causal connection between what citizens want and what the government does: citizen preferences must drive government policy. But that doesn’t require that everyone with input over policy is elected. It doesn’t, for example, require that civil servants and judges are selected by election. It just requires that those with ultimate authority over policy are elected. When this is the case, citizen preferences can flow into policy via such elected officials. Now here’s the nub. The UK Parliament achieves exactly this as it is currently constituted. The elected chamber – the House of Commons – can overrule the House of Lords. MPs ultimately decide what policies get enacted. The House of Lords can merely scrutinise and delay legislation. Any changes it proposes must be approved by the House of Commons. Thus, in the contemporary UK, voters can elect MPs, and those MPs can enact the policies that voters want them to enact. Citizen preferences can flow into policy via the House of Commons.
One cannot fruitfully evaluate whether each chamber is democratic in isolation – one must evaluate the system as a whole.
The underlying point here is that individual legislative chambers are part of a system of democratic institutions. One cannot fruitfully evaluate whether each chamber is democratic in isolation – one must evaluate the system as a whole. And, in any system in which elected officials ultimately determine policy, citizens can manifest their will through governmental action. Democracy doesn’t require that the House of Lords be democratically elected.
Indeed, the work of the House of Lords promotes democratic autonomy. This is because citizens rarely want specific policies; they often want certain outcomes. We want prosperity, liberal rights, good healthcare, low crime, and so on. These outcomes can be advanced by improving the details of legislation. The House of Lords does just that. It cleans up vague drafting, pushes back on constitutional impropriety, and raises issues that government ministers have simply overlooked. In many cases, governments accede to amendments in the House of Lords because they are convinced that these amendments will lead to the outcomes citizens want. When this happens, the House of Lords helps citizens bring about these desired outcomes. That makes these outcomes more the manifestation of our will. It makes us more the authors of our social and political lives.
A chamber of experts
Still, the House of Lords is a peculiar institution. We should sweep away some of those peculiarities. I believe that we should make the House of Lords a properly technocratic chamber – a chamber well-positioned to improve policy on the margins, without having the final say over policy. This will make us all better off and, crucially, improve our ability to get the outcomes we want from policy. To do this means ensuring that the House of Lords contains a deep, diverse store of expertise. That requires getting rid of the hereditary peers, and perhaps the bishops too.
I believe that we should make the House of Lords a properly technocratic chamber
More generally, I believe it is best achieved by empowering the House of Lords Appointment Commission to veto appointees – including partisan appointees – on grounds of unsuitability. The standard of suitability should be akin to that currently employed for crossbenchers: whether an appointee has the knowledge and character to contribute significantly to the legislative work of the House of Lords. This would prevent the appointment of party donors and political aides while promoting that of real experts. So no fundamental principle of democracy requires that the House of Lords be elected – it should instead be a chamber of genuine experts.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: House of Lords, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed | Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic | Creative Commons