The Weekend Debate: What’s wrong with making membership of the second chamber a lottery?

Here’s your starter for ten in our weekend slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate…

The debate about what a reformed House of Lords should look like has been defeating legislators for well over a century — and here’s a novel proposal from Sandy Walkington, who stood for the Lib Dems in St Albans at the last election:

Greece is not exactly in fashion at the moment. But we could learn a thing or two from ancient Athens. They chose their office holders by lot from amongst the citizens, who then had to serve for a fixed term as part of their civic duty. We have our own history of a legal system where jurors are chosen by random selection – something started by our Saxon forbears. More recently citizens’ juries have become an accepted option in taking major public decisions.

When the latest attempts to reform the House of Lords run into the sand as they almost certainly will – although only after a huge amount of misspent political capital – perhaps we can look at some variant of this type of random selection as a perfectly sane way to choose members of a reformed second chamber.

It would take politics out of politics. It would guarantee a representative House in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and geography. There would be that sublime element of random which makes the House of Lords at its best so refreshing and un-spun – but it would no longer be the Eton-educated random of whether your ancestor had been Charles II’s mistress or you had left the House of Commons through popular demand. …

At one bound we could end patronage, still leave the House of Commons as clearly the senior because elected Chamber, and yet provide for a genuinely and refreshingly representative membership of a new second Chamber to to hold the Commons to account as well as reviewing and initiating legislation.

I now learn that this idea of mine has an academic name – “sortition.” It just could be the way to sort out the House of Lords conundrum.

You can read Sandy’s full rationale at his blog here.

So, over to you Lib Dem Voice readers. Is the notion of ‘sortition’ for the Lords madcap or genius — or a bit of both? Let us know what you think below…

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • In ancient Athens, I think the lottery was among the educated and successful, not the hoi polloi. They all understood how their civic institutions worked and what was expected of the office holders. There is not an equivalent in modern Britain. Most people don’t understand how government works. Most don’t know the difference between a bill and an act. Most hate public speaking. Most can’t recognise a logical fallacy in an argument. Most people, if they read a newspaper, read the Mail, the Express and the Sun.

    A jury is just about the only institution chosen this way. It works because the lawyers and the judge distill the arguments to a form that the jury can understand. All the jury has to do is decide yes or no. Who would perform this task for a House of Lords selected by lottery and wouldn’t the political arguments just be pushed back into the process that decided on the questions to ask?

  • I have long liked the idea of a lottery for the House of Lords, with say a fifth being picked at random from the electoral register every year and serve a five-year term. They should keep the title of Lord for life (watering down its snobbish value). It could certainly ensure a geographical spread (taking a fair number from each region) and the random element *should* ensure over time that a roughly fair cross-sectional of people were represented.

    That said, I think one of the problems with achieving Lords reforms is that people endlessly come up with more and more ways of doing it. Nick has put one system for reform on the table and I think we shld campaign to get it through, and if that means a little compromise on a small unelected element or keeping a reduced number of clerics then so be it. We can worry about them in another 100 years.

  • Keith Browning 26th May '12 - 10:24am

    @Julian Unbelievable – arrogance in the extreme – even more than DC and his chums. Perhaps get out and listen to the ‘hoi polloi’ – they speak more sense than you’ll hear in Parliament.

    Having sat on two juries I was amazed at the wide cross section of people that the system threw together and how during our debates those further down life’s pecking order spoke more sense than those nearer the top.

    I would very much favour a lottery system with a representative from each constituency. The main difference with a lottery is the winners would be less likely to be the mouth-piece for vested interests, which is where our political and governmental system falls apart. That is probably my main reason for being a Lib Dem supporter – they don’t seem to have their noses in the trough.

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 10:28am

    This proposal is idiotic, IMO. Like Julian says, the old lottery was selective, from a class expected to be interested and wise, and even then was defective. If the new one selects at random from the entire population, we are certainly going to end up with some very fraught Lords debates and perverse decisions.

    There is no way that such a house should have any special powers whatsoever to veto what the elected chamber debates or decides, and no way that such a house could be said to have any representative authority or wisdow or experience by which to comment. A mismanaged TV show could probably do as well. At least in the present system there is some attempt at selecting on the basis of merit, such as those peers there for science, or on the basis of very rekevant experience, such as peers who were previous PMs or Chancellors.

    Lobbyists with deep pockets and persuasive manners would perhaps have a field day. It would probably save their sponsors a fortune. As far as people selected to serve are concerned, it;s likely to be very disruptive to normal career paths and life in general.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 26th May '12 - 10:37am

    We should pick the head of state using this system.

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 10:50am

    idiotic –> without merit. Sorry for being rude. It’s human.

  • A lottery! NO. We need the second chanber to be political and full of the brightest and wisest if it is to hold the House of Commons accountable. I was so impressed by the work done on the Lansley Bill by dedicated Lords/Ladies, who knew that they had to get their amendments through to produce a Bill, which was anywhere near acceptable.The experience in Government and public service of so many members of the Lords is of huge value to British government and we cannot lose that. We can and must lose the peers, who do not care about politics, rarely turn up and are often unsure how to vote. An elected second chamber should ensure that the House of Commons cannot get away with half thought out legixlation.

  • I am saddened to see Liberal Democrats decrying this idea, one I have supported for 30 years! If you really analyse what opponents are saying, they are claiming that the public cannot be trusted. Perhaps the reason for that is because our democratic system actually takes away power from the people, delegating it to ‘those in authority’ and the enivitable result is that people without power exercise no responsibility.

    A good example is the public attitude regarding the death penalty. Opinion polls consistantly show support for its re-introduction. However if you start putting many supporters in the position where they would have to actually make the decision about weather some individual actually lives or dies, they often change their mind. It is why juries are consistantly more liberal than the popular press would like. If we provided a professional civil service to put the case both for and against any particular legislation, I would suggest that a random selection of the population are likely to make better judgments than any politians ever will. They have no electorate to please, no party to restrain and no pressure to do other than what they think is right.

    It may be a scarey thought to the Political Classes – which is why it won’t happen – but it would be truely Democratic in the proper sense of the word.

  • Andrew Suffield 26th May '12 - 12:01pm

    If you really analyse what opponents are saying, they are claiming that the public cannot be trusted

    No. They are saying that the public can and will be manipulated.

    If you picked a thousand random people to serve for an extended period and gave them real power, do you think for one minute that they wouldn’t all quickly find themselves employed by a major corporation, and invited to dinner by “down to earth” celebrities who will explain the political situation to them in exactly the way that vested interests would like it to be explained?

    A good marketing department with a large budget can get a thousand people to believe anything.

  • Keith Browning 26th May '12 - 12:24pm

    @Andrew Suffield
    ‘A good marketing department with a large budget can get a thousand people to believe anything.’

    or perhaps one person and a thousand texts – LOL

  • @Andrew Suffiel
    “No. They are saying that the public can and will be manipulated.”

    But surely the public are already manipulated by the political classes, who in turn are often manipulated by the sort of organisations you mention?

    This ties in quite nicely with a previous article regarding having a life before politics where some believe only the “special” ones can be politicians. We see variations on the argument here as well,e.g. not enough wisdom etc.

    As David Parry mentions, there would be some good outcomes, but some of these would probably scare the political classes witless (“What’s happened to my lobby fodder?!!!!”). I must admit, it is something I’ve often thought would be a good solution for the Lords issue, if it eases any furrowed brows them perhaps we could call them expert citizens?

  • @Andrew Suffield
    Apologies – missed a “d” above

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 12:36pm

    Here is an illuminating story about the ordinary people and the death penalty

  • @Richard Dean
    Sort of illuminating, just shows what can happen when the people no longer believe in the system, or believe that the system is corrupt and inefficient. Bearing in mind how much people think of politicians at the moment, perhaps a lottery would help folks believe that the system understands their needs. This in turn may help prevent a descent in to “lynch mob justice” as per the report.

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 1:50pm

    @Chris_sh. Their motive for killing people is not that they don’t trust the system. Their motive is that they believe that the people are thieves, and that killing them is justice and an effective deterrent.

  • @Graham Martin-Royle

    “We should pick the head of state using this system”
    Shades of Spike Milligan – “God Bless Mrs Ethel Stokes” 😀

  • David Parry 26th May '12 - 2:08pm

    @ Richard Dean

    Your al jazeera post misses or perhaps illustrates the point I was trying to make. Lynch mobs rely on NOT considering and debating the facts of the case. After a proper consideration of the issues, people tend to be more reasoned, rational and liberal. Perhaps the second chamber should also be not televised to reduce the external pressures?

  • @Richard Dean
    “Their motive for killing people is not that they don’t trust the system. Their motive is that they believe that the people are thieves, and that killing them is justice and an effective deterrent.”

    00:47 “..They say both the police and the judiciary are corrupt and inneficient”
    01:00 “The police capture a robber and right after frees him, that is why the population doesn’t trust them…”
    01:13 “police are sometimes unable or unwilling to confront an angry crowd”
    01:40 “… that cases are investigated and judged with due process, but many cases end up being forgotten …”
    02:31 “desperate people who feel unprotected by their police”

    Cause and effect, don’t mix them up Richard. Removing trust and belief in the system can have bad consequences.

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 2:24pm

    @David Parry. The Al-Jazeera post mentions that the villagers do debate whether or not to kill the people they catch. They presumably believe it’s a “proper” debate. It’s very participatory, and it’s them that define the word “proper”.

    How would it be that televising one chamber is good for democracy while televising the other isn’t?

    I wonder what would be the fate of a party that seriously proposed this to the electorate?

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 2:25pm

    The cause is the thievery. The effect is the killing.

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 2:37pm

    Anyway, the funamental point is surely that choosing by lottery represents a total distrust of the people to learn to choose through elections? Of course people make mistakes, but democracy is not just a system of voting, it’s a system of learning through participation, and mistakes is one way people learn. Peru is learning that a corrupt system of justice has serious effects. Syria is learning, very very slowly, that family power is not democracy. Making the Lords a lottery removes the important aspect of learning through choices made at a ballot box.

  • @Richard
    “Peru is learning that a corrupt system of justice has serious effects.”

    So it’s not “The cause is the thievery. The effect is the killing.” then.

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 3:11pm

    The people doing the killing aren’t saying that their killing is wrong. The people observing it are. The people observing it are seeing that a corrupt system has unwanted effects. It’s certainly a way for the people who are doing the killing to learn, but it’s going backwards not forwards. Is this a good example for us to follow?

    By electing politicians, we only have ourselves to blame if things go wrong – sure we can say the politicians are corrupt, but we chose them. The process we are participating in is a process of learning how to choose well. Reducing the process to a lottery destroys that important method of developing democracy through learning.

  • @Richard
    I think you’re over straining to avoid the obvious point, if people feel let down then they will do their own thing. As there was a time when things weren’t as bad, then the thieving cannot be the main cause (or they would have always lynched lots of thieves).
    “By electing politicians, we only have ourselves to blame if things go wrong – sure we can say the politicians are corrupt, but we chose them”
    But if the system has become an oligarchy (dominated by professional politicians and PR suits), then the people are just voting for more of the same and not for any meaningful change.

    I find it interesting that you feel that people do not have enough wisdom or experience to sit in parliament, but you expect them to have enough experience and wisdom to select someone that they don’t know from Adam. I suppose your views are coloured by the belief that we should have a political class running the show, but wasn’t the Greek lottery an attempt to avoid such a system, didn’t the Greeks realise that there were real dangers in allowing such a group of people to monopolise the system?

  • I think the only thing that’s really wrong with the idea is that a lot of people wouldn’t want to do it, and I don’t think it could be imposed as a legal duty if it involved a lengthy period of service.

    But essentially I think all the other arguments against it boil down to not trusting the people (a disturbingly common trend in Lib Dem discussions about the House of Lords these days). I think there’s a lot to be said for broad matters of principle – and even a lot of matters of detail – having to be approved by random groups of citizens chosen to consider particular questions, and serving for a much shorter period – say a fortnight or so.

  • @Chris
    “I think the only thing that’s really wrong with the idea is that a lot of people wouldn’t want to do it, and I don’t think it could be imposed as a legal duty if it involved a lengthy period of service.”

    Initially I think there may well be a reluctance, however some of that may be due to the current disconnect between voters and the politicians. People may not be interested in politics as they engage in rational ignorance, give them a chance to have a direct influence and perhaps the interest will increase?

    I suppose the period will always be problematic, there would have to be an assurance that a persons previous job was held open for them – but many employers may think that the experience gained by their employees was worth the hassle?

  • Richard Dean 26th May '12 - 11:00pm

    @Chris_sh. I don’t see any “obvious” point. People can make their views felt through blogs, letters, TV shows- they don’t need to be in the Lords for that.

  • What we are trying to get away from is an appointed HoL where the governing party controls the appointments. What we should put in its place is, not a second elected chamber, but instead, an appointed HoL where the government does NOT control the appointments.

    Random appointment of (say) 25% of the members, on (say) a 3-monthly rotation, would certainly be one good way to bring in the genuine voice of the wider public. However, we need an expert revising chamber, so more than about 25% randomised appointments would be wrong.

    Another 65% should be appointed by a civil service commission, by competitive application and interview, to fill allotted positions. Thus there should be separate quotas for representatives of business, the arts, the faiths (to include opposition to faith!), minorities, science, engineering, the professions, the non-professional occupations, charities, communities, sports, and the socially disadvantaged / excluded. A final 10% allocation should be provided for a rotating panel of researchers and experts on whatever particular topic the new HoL is dealing with at the moment.

    That way we will get a genuinely independent revising chamber to counterbalance the politicians in government. And we won’t get a pointless and indeed harmful second elected chamber, which would only clash with the Commons, get into disputes as to which House should be the leading chamber, and create confusion and gridlock.

  • @Richard Dean
    “I don’t see any “obvious” point.”

    So you don’t feel that the loss of trust in the system had anything to do with the huge increase of these events? In your mind it is entirely the fault of the hoi polloi and that they should just accept their lot?

    “People can make their views felt through blogs, letters, TV shows- they don’t need to be in the Lords for that.”

    The people who frequent sites such as LDV tend to be interested in politics and have some grasp of what it is about. As only about half of the population claim that they are knowledgeable about national politics, we obviously have the worry that the other half of the population are left out of decision making as they will not participate in the things you mention.

    The decline in support for the usual parties has been quite amazing. Although some form of party system is required for efficiency, the current parties are obviously failing badly (I read somewhere that only about 2% of the population currently belong to a political party – but only about 400k belong to one of the big 3). Not only are the main parties in decline, they do not seem to have any real idea of how to enthuse the population, with reform of the HoL probably just a faint blip on the edge of most voters radar screens.

    If the 3 main parties decided to butt out of any HoL election it may help a little, but it is just as likely that the 50% with knowledge would fill the House. If there is a lottery then those in the lower echelons of society (where the main body of disinterest is) would have a better chance of their voice being heard, when they see that people similar to themselves are making decisions, it may increase their desire to become involved with the process.

    The big blocker of course is the current establishment (the party politicians and the small clique of followers/members) who may lose some control. But perhaps it would be well for them to remember that whilst a turkey may not vote for Christmas, it still happens.

    @David Allen
    Seems like a sensible balance.

  • Richard Dean 27th May '12 - 1:27am

    @Chris_sh. Be realistic! Those villages had plenty of choices of alternative punishments – they didn’t have to choose to kill people. The corruption of the official justice system is what led them to start to re-construct a new justice system, yes. But it was not the corruption that led them to kill. It was their own choices and understanding that led them to choose that particulatr form for their own system.

  • Isn’t a lottery incinsistent with our beloved STV?

  • @Richard Dean

    Please expand on your “choice” theory and why you think it would have made things better for them (in the materialistic sense, not through the eyes of some Western version of morality please) – whilst I may not condone what they do I can certainly understand it.

  • Daniel Henry 27th May '12 - 1:47pm

    @ David Allen
    I’d have an elected element also. Good to have the parties represented seeing as it’s their ideas being discussed.

  • Darn right the public can’t be trusted. to say so does not mean the political class can be trusted, either, or the public be excluded. It just means that as a fact of human nature, no one can be trusted. Everyone in office must be under more check and accountability thanthey are.
    I’m very in favour of a second chamber that the public who are actually interested can get some participation in through sensible means, on a model like the Scottish parliament’s cross-party groups on a range of topics. But in the random jury-type idea, besides the disruption of unwilling folks’ lives and hown to expect unintersted conscripted folks to act sensibly, here is the clincher against the whole idea. How will you feel if the lottery gives you a Lords with a majority of fascists and hardline anti-immigration bigots trained by the Daily Express and Mail? At a time when an election would not have given you that?

  • @Daniel Henry

    Yes, fair point, a smallish elected element in the HoL would help communication and interaction between a primarily appointed expert revising chamber and the elected Commons. Keeping the elected percentage down to say 20-30% would safely ensure the second chamber maintained its status as a revising chamber.

  • Guy Patterson 28th May '12 - 10:41am

    It would help if a clear definition of ‘scrutinise’ was made. If representation is required then election is the way to go, but if expertise is the requirement then these ‘lords’ would need to be appointed. All the NHS amendments could have been made in the Commons. Why did that not happen? The House of Lords is being used to prop up a flawed House of Commons. That is where the reform is needed.

  • Tim Longman 28th May '12 - 8:58pm

    I think it is a good idea for a portion of the house to be chosen this way. It’s interesting how many commentators on here think the “ordinary public” is incapable of understanding the issues or is naively open to manipulation. It might well increase interest in the house – and might even uncover some political stars who might never had had a chance (not going to Oxbridge via public school, picking up a special adviser job, parachuted into a safe seat, etc etc). Lord knows we could do with some people with other life experiences…..

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '12 - 12:45pm

    During the time I was Leader of the Opposition in Labour-run London Borough of Lewisham, they used a “Citizens’ Jury” to push through the idea of a an “executive mayor”, what I saw of this was enough to put me off the idea.

    The information presented to the Citizens’ Jury was very biased – I was not permitted to address it, for example. It was the same sort of bias that was in this year’s referendums on mayors, making out it was just about whether the Leader was elected indirectly or elected, and saying NOTHING about what the mayor system really means – transfer of power ultimately shared by the whole elected chamber to power ultimately in the hands of one person with the chamber reduced to mere consultative status.

    Most people who aren’t heavily involved in politics tend not to see the holes in political ideas when presented to them, and don’t necessarily have the skills to question them. So actually a Citizens’ jury can very easily be led into giving the answer that was wanted in the first place. Politics does require a certain amount of wiliness, especially opposition politics. Take out the professional opposition politicians who have built up a skill in asking the awkward questions and throw in a whole load of bored people who just want it to be all over so they can to back to their jobs, and what are you left with?

    What I found in LB Lewisham was that the use of the Citizens’ Jury was then used to silence me. Whenever I tried to speak against the move to the mayor system I was told “Shut up, the people have spoken, who are you to disagree with them?”.

    While there is a superficial attraction to the idea (many years ago I wrote an essay in favour of it, before I had even heard anyone else suggest the idea – I made it up myself), I feel that it is one of those “people’s democracy” tools beloved of dictatorial types who feel the need for some sort of cover.

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