"If we trust a group of people to listen to evidence, discuss it and come to the right decision in the criminal justice system, why not in the political system?"
At the Sortition Foundation, we believe that for politics to work for ordinary people it has to involve ordinary people. That’s why we’re campaigning for the House of Lords to be replaced with a House of Citizens: a permanent, rolling citizens’ assembly.
In contrast to the House of Lords, a House of Citizens would be a second chamber made up of around 300 people who reflect the broad makeup of our country. Imagine being guaranteed that half the decision makers are women and many are young. Unlike the Lords where most have had a career in politics, a House of Citizens would be made up of people from all walks of life: tradespeople, carers, shopkeepers, nurses, doctors, artists, teachers and business people. They’d be paid the same as MPs and, if they were willing and able to, serve in the House of Citizens before returning to work like they’d been on parental leave.
It’s well documented that trust in politics is at rock bottom. Indeed lack of faith in politics and politicians often only trails behind the NHS and the economy and inflation as the most important issue facing Britain (see table below). This should concern us all. Trust in government underpins the consent that lies at the heart of a strong democracy.
When Keir Starmer pledged to abolish the House of Lords, he did so announcing that it was in order to ‘restore trust in politics’. He is right to identify the House of Lords as an institution that drives distrust. Scandal after scandal places the Lords at the heart of corruption in British politics. But he is wrong to believe that an elected second chamber would improve matters. In fact, arguably it risks making things worse. Other countries with an elected second chamber: Japan, South Africa, Brazil and the United States are amongst those with the lowest trust in government in the world. It hardly guarantees integrity in parliament if, as Martyn Rush has written, “a US senator can be bought just as surely as a peerage can be sold.” Until the political system accommodates the public appetite for elected leaders to be properly held to account, electing more politicians conceivably risks producing more examples of the sort of dishonest behaviour that further degrades public trust. More fundamentally, we have to acknowledge that the last thing people want, who are already sick of politicians, is more politicians. The cause cannot be the cure. We need a real alternative that drives a new normal in British politics.
The good news is that while trust in the system and political class who inhabit it is decreasing, our trust in each other is increasing. Research published in April found that the UK public are among the most likely people in the world to say that they trust their neighbour. This may explain the commonly held belief that a criminal trial by a jury of ordinary people is fairer than such a trial by a judge. And why trust in judges decreases among those who don’t look like them (i.e. white, older men). In a jury we see our community. A community who we already trust to drive the bus we get to work, to look after our kids, to care for our elderly. As UCL’s Constitution Unit found last year, trust in the court system to act in our best interests far supersedes trust in the civil service or parliament (see below). All of which begs the question, if we trust a group of people to listen to evidence, discuss it and come to the right decision in the criminal justice system, why not in the political system?
The British public are once again ahead of the curve. A House of Citizens topped the YouGov public poll that asked what should replace the House of Lords. An OECD study found that one of the beliefs associated with high trust in the courts and legal system (and perhaps therefore citizens’ assemblies) is that they’re perceived as being able to make decisions free from political influence. There is a myth that the House of Lords is similarly independent: a kind of non-partisan body of knowledgeable folk, nobly scrutinising legislation in the public interest. In reality, the vast majority of its members take a political whip just like in the Commons. The attendance records show nearly half of the Lords often don’t turn up at all, but of those who do, partisan peers are disproportionately represented and vote far more regularly than crossbenchers. So as the Electoral Reform Society have documented, the Lords is anything but ‘free from political influence’. No wonder people feel like politicians just get their mates to mark their homework. The appointment process to the red benches is currently perhaps one of the most brazen expressions of cronyism in modern politics. But would this really change if we elected the second chamber? The candidate selection process within political parties is often at best opaque and at worst viciously sectarian. Imagine if instead politicians were held to account by ordinary citizens. A House of Citizens could operate like a people’s panopticon, transforming the behaviour of politicians and the broader culture of British politics.
Of course there will be opponents to the idea. The job of every political party is to win and maintain power, not cede it to those who Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution, called “the ignorant class”. A coalition of elitists and technocrats who lack faith in the collective wisdom, capacity and power of ordinary people, will claim “it can’t work” as if what we have now works in any meaningful sense other than as a perpetual source of national embarrassment. But for the rest of us, it’s time to campaign to place the trust we feel in each other in institutional form. Only a House of Citizens will help restore trust in politics and make us proud of our democracy once more.
See Public Preferences for Integrity and Accountability in Politics, The Constitution Unit (2023)
Placing the public within parliament would place parliament and it’s actors in a state of conscious and permanent public visibility known as the “Panopticon Effect” https://fs.blog/the-panopticon-effect/