The RSA



Democracy, the big society and the Upper House

All parties promise House of Lords reform but there is no agreement on how. Donald Curtis FRSA argues that, rather than a direct vote in enlarged constituencies, citizens would have most democratic influence if they worked through the membership organisations of civil society to ensure that the people who sit in the upper house are knowledgeable and experienced in areas of their concern.

RSA Fellows amongst others are rightly exploring the power of networks, looking for social innovation and enhanced citizen engagement in modern democracy. There is a movement here and it is good. The RSA itself provides evidence of the potential of open-ended nets of individuals to influence or shape specific areas of thinking in public policy. Power nevertheless still lies within established public institutions, the House of Lords amongst many; yesteryear’s networks congealed into the UK’s unwritten constitution.

As a result, many commentators are wary of generating great expectations about David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ vision and indeed, about civil society more generally, finding instead evidence of citizen alienation rather than engagement; disaffection with the political class, declining political party rolls, ballot box fatigue and, in extremes, social breakdown, as in the summer before last’s riots. As Mark Thriscutt argued on these pages this is the result of the mental orientation of people who feel ‘done unto’ rather than ‘doing’; and most of us seem to exhibit it. For governments, citizen passivity is evidence of the moral hazard that stems from over-reaching state claims to competence in the social sphere. Citizen empowerment calls for something more than a once in four or once in 15-year vote.

The democratic quarrel with the House of Lords concerns the manner of their Lords appointment. But election on the same basis as the House of Commons is not the solution. Our party-aligned MPs may be good at what they do but do we really want more of them, with overlapping and conflicting mandates? Appointment to the House of Lords has always been, at best, a reward for demonstrated public service, made on the supposition that experience in the socially responsible institutions of civil society; representing the professions, the military, industry, organised labour, the arts, faith-based organisations, as well as philanthropic or public-interest organisations can add value to the law-making process. So why not give the bodies that represent these interests a means of directly promoting candidates to an Upper House? This could either be by direct election from a slate drawn up by these bodies or nomination of candidates to a list that is then voted upon by the public at large or by House of Commons. The House of Commons in any case could decide which such interest organisations should constitute this electorate.

Political interest or common sense has always led to some members of such organisations being elevated to the Upper house, there joining Bishops of the Church of England and the Law Lords (at least until 2009) who reach there through their institutions. But importantly, for plural democracy, the Prime Minister and party leaders would lose their powers of patronage and civil society would gain new responsibilities for scrutiny in governance.

Would this increase citizen power and influence? For many, if not most citizens membership of associations, unions or professional bodies is an important aspect of their social lives; media through which they express values, explore knowledge, define standards and aspirations and exercise concerns for particular aspects of the wider public good. A teacher, for instance, might legitimately feel that to have a teachers’ union or professional association representative in the Second Chamber would provide a better voice for the profession than is provided by a party whipped MP. The membership organisations themselves – often in practice taken for granted – would be given a boost by taking on this democratic role.

Democracy worldwide is currently both flourishing and challenged, driven by the liberty that comes with new means of inter-personal communication, but challenged by the need to find new forms of representation of interests in plural societies. We in the UK could expand the format; from ‘one person one vote’ to ‘each person several means of expressing values within the governance sphere’.

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