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5 March, 2006

Peer pressure

Dr John Parkinson, politics lecturer at the University of York, makes an interesting argument for the retention of the House of Lords, the unelected 'second chamber' of the UK national government.

It's frequently suggested that the Lords should undergo fundamental reform, becoming an elected upper house, or should be abolished outright. Parkinson explains that this is the 'majoritarian' view of democracy

On this view, parties that win elections win a mandate to implement their manifesto promises without interference. Majoritarians think that anything else would be undemocratic: it would be to frustrate the free choice of the people.
Majoritarian doctrines about mandates are increasingly called into question. One reason for this is that elections give only general, all-things-considered judgments on a party's fitness to rule, not specific approval of particular policies.
Someone who voted for Labour for, say, their proposed reforms of the education system didn't automatically also support the presence of UK troops in Iraq.

An alternative approach is 'deliberative' democracy:

Deliberative democrats argue that legitimacy depends not so much on elections, more on the quality of arguments in inclusive, public debate. Ideas are good if they are publicly defensible, not just if the majority party in parliament believes they are.
Therefore, on the deliberative view, elections give parties the right to set the legislative agenda and command the loyalty of the public service, but not carte blanche.
Hence the role of a second chamber, able to scrutinise the government, oblige it to publicly defend its proposals, and to amend unjustified proposals. Parkinson suggests it's positively an advantage that those performing this function are not elected, neither having to conform to party ideology/pressure nor to please an electorate to retain their jobs.

This is a little idealistic, of course, and my perception is that the membership of the Lords is skewed towards particular world views.
In principle, I agree with Parkinson, that an unelected upper house has compelling advantages. However, I'm less convinced that the existing House Of Lords is that ideal upper house in practice.

Slightly tangentially, I'm afraid my cynicism pounced on the following statement:

The irony in all this is that a more deliberative, less majoritarian Britain is a stated goal of the present government.
Well, yes, that sounds extremely Blairite. "Of course there should be less of that annoying and trivial direct accountability to the people, okay, because we're right. Trust us; we'll look after you. Tony's never wrong, you know, and always has a heartfelt sense of the right thing to do. Go on; trust us. That's not a request."


I remember seeing a few times in magazines and on documentaries that the House of Lords is historically responsible for instigating and driving over 75% of Britain's social-ist legislation, but that that rate dropped dramatically as the proportion of Life Peers rose.

Interesting confirmation that the stated goal's chosen mechanism was not entirely derisory.

EDIT: lol- your spam filter made me put the hyphen in that word-- otherwise the middle of it looks like a spam term (drop the leading 'so' and trailing 't' :D )

Posted by Saltation at March 7, 2006 12:17 PM
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