Getting real about a House of Citizens

Blog house of lords, reform

Efforts that have successfully advanced the democratic rights of everyday people have been powered by the mass participation of everyday people. If we want to see changes to the House of Lords, then this is a lesson we ignore at our peril.

“It’s a lovely idea, but it’s never going to happen, is it.” This was the opening assertion posed by BBC2 Daily Politics host Jo Carney to Richard Askwith who’d been invited onto the show to talk about his book People Power. The ”lovely idea” was that members of Parliament’s upper chamber should be selected using sortition. An idea that, at the Sortition Foundation, we call a House of Citizens. And as part 1 of this blog set out, an idea that we believe has to happen if we hope to restore trust in politics.

To state, like Carney, that something ‘is too idealistic and just won’t work’, as if stating a fact, is an effective way of discrediting an idea. Of course, in reality these assertions are underpinned by a set of assumptions and ideas of their own: views of how power works, who has it and what it takes to “make something happen”. Views which are just that, and which this blog will interrogate.

Of course, discussions around reforming the upper house tend to focus on the need to elect its members. Perhaps Carney considers this a more ‘realistic’ goal, one that we can ‘make happen’ by working with the ‘grown ups’ in parliament to achieve. But how realistic is this? History is a great teacher of such things. Accepting that we all have biases and echo chambers that colour our view of history, a brief consideration of political system reform in this country leaves me feeling that this position is ahistorical for two reasons.

Firstly political leaders have been trying to secure an elected second chamber for more than 100 years. The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 stated “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis.” Maybe after over a century of trying the same thing it’s time to call it a day and try something else? After all, there’s a famous saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Many assume that it’s the Lords who block reform but in fact a majority of the attempts don’t make it out of the Commons[1]. MPs regularly rehearse the concern that an elected second chamber would undermine the primacy of the Commons. With public faith in the commons at a record low, it’s easy to imagine this objection inflating in the current political weather and perhaps rightly so. However, this is not a threat that a House of Citizens would pose. Unlike an elected chamber, which would in a sense duplicate the Commons in terms of both who is involved and how they operate, a House of Citizens would offer a far more complementary counterpoint and neatly sidestep the MPs’ objection.

Secondly there’s a common assumption that to ‘make this happen’ we just need the right political party with enough power and lobby them with enough evidence and they’ll do the right thing and democratise the nation. But this ignores that the purpose of a political party is to win and maintain power, not give it away; and very rarely do the winners change the rules of the game they’ve just won. Instead, let’s consider the moments we’re most proud of in our democratic history, moments that are nearly universally celebrated like when the first women [2] won the vote in 1918. Was change created using lobbyists, briefings and roundtables alone? No, they also involved mass public participation in actions. So much so that the motto of the group founded by the celebrated leader Emmeline Pankhurst was “deeds not words”. And while some of the suffragette’s most infamous actions such as Emily Davison running onto a racecourse might feel like the kind of vanguard politics of groups like Just Stop Oil today, there were also huge actions like the rush on Parliament in October 1908 when 60,000 people gathered in an attempt to invade the House of Commons. Of course, the movement was also dependent upon lobbying such as that done by National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett, but history suggests we need both. Just like Bill Moyer outlines in his book Doing Democracy, to make change happen successful movements require different roles to be undertaken, we need helpers and reformers like Fawcett but we also need rebels and organisers like Pankhurst.

Efforts that have successfully advanced the democratic rights of everyday people have been powered by the mass participation of everyday people. If we want to see changes to the House of Lords, then this is a lesson we ignore at our peril.
James Robertson Sortition Foundation

Efforts that have successfully advanced the democratic rights of everyday people have been powered by the mass participation of everyday people. If we want to see changes to the House of Lords, then this is a lesson we ignore at our peril. Of course, there is no people-powered mass movement for an elected second chamber. When everyone is sick of politicians, why would people dedicate time, money and effort campaigning to electing more of them? In contrast, a people’s house seems like something ordinary people might deem worth fighting for. Members of Extinction Rebellion already successfully mobilise people to fight for citizens assemblies. For example, last year, eight activists echoed the suffragettes’ rush on parliament and invaded the House of Commons to demand that they “let the people decide.”

Often however, talk of strategies such as this, grounded as they are in an appreciation of both the history of democratic change and scale of public anger and detachment from British politics, are met with concerns that they’re “too political”. While we must recognise government’s attempts to intimidate civil society organisations, through charity regulation and the lobbying act, my sense is that there’s something else at play here. Perhaps it is a Fukuyaman belief that liberal democracy has won the great battle of ideas and is here to stay? In reality democracy is far more precarious. Whether it’s the storming of the Reichstag in Germany, attacks on the Brazilian Congress or the US capitol riots there is an increase of far right groups using similar slogans, pushing an anti-democratic agenda all over the world. Meanwhile centre right governments like ours are illegally suspending parliament and rolling back our civil liberties. In this context, being pro-democracy is not “neutral” or “apolitical”.

Lastly, as democrats, we should object in principle to looking at policy proposals such as a House of Citizens purely through a technical lens. It’s incredibly disempowering to reduce social change to a question of management by elite technicians who define what policies are “realistic” and what is the correct means of achieving them as it means only “those who know best” can participate in the decision. Instead, using a political lens to look at problems invites more participatory decision making as we understand there is no “right answer”. Instead we have to engage in the messy process called democracy, see beyond this arbitrary “realism” and that what we want isn’t impossible, it just hasn’t happened yet.