An essay by Frank Field for the ResPublica collection, Our House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords. February 2012.
A TRULY REPRESENTATIVE LORDS
Much of the previous government’s time was spent on reforming our constitution. In none of the background papers, nor in the subsequent debate, did any Minister set out the principals which underpin British democracy and how the proposed reforms would strengthen our democratic institutions.
Much of our constitution has over the past decade been remodelled out of all recognition. But reforms have been undertaken absent mindedly with respect to how they have affected the democratic principles that form the political culture of this country. Reforming the House of Lords offers what might be the last opportunity to reform part of our constitution by principal rather than by mere fashion.
Representative and Responsible Government by A. H. Birch is, in my view, the best study to date to have set out the constitutional principles that underpin our democracy. Here I wish to concentrate on how the term ‘representative’ has become one of the two pillars of our constitution and how this idea ought to be the guiding principal for reforming the House of Lords.
Representation has four meanings in our constitution. First, the term is used of someone who has been freely elected on the universal franchise and is dependent on his or her constituents for re-election. Second, the term ‘representative’ can be viewed as an agent or delegate. The origins of democracy within the trade union movement were focused within the local branch meetings, which mandated delegates to represent the decision of the branch at higher meetings of the union. It was once common to see Labour MPs acting as representatives in this sense of the term. Third, the term ‘representative’ signifies that a person is typical of the group that has elected them. MPs are seen to be representative if they mirror not so much the main characteristics, but the views of the group that elects them.
There is a fourth meaning given to the term ‘representative’. From earliest times, membership of the Commons was based on the idea of group representation, i.e. the individual in the Commons represented the whole of their area, and not just the very small number of people who had the vote. Indeed, the first squires called to Parliament were chosen on the basis that they would be able to speak for their whole area and, because of this, be able to enforce locally any taxation Parliament agreed. Members of the House of Commons were not therefore representing individual interests, in theory at least, nor simply the interest of the majority of voters. The representation of a whole area is still effective when a constituency is engulfed in crisis. The local MP in such circumstances is expected to defend his or her patch, even if it means defying their government.
The representation of groups in our constitution is almost as old as the representation of particular areas. And the idea of group representation continued to play one of the effective representative roles in our constitution right up to the sleaze crisis that engulfed John Major’s government. Individuals were then found to have taken money to represent outside interests in the Commons. Following the goading by the Nolan Report, the Commons, instead of expelling the offending Members, barred the professional representation of interests within its walls. This move was a violent assault on the richness that has been attached to the meaning of representation in our democracy. It was an absurd position to adopt but that is where the debate rests for the moment.
The work of the Commons over the centuries had been deeply enriched by the group knowledge that has been brought to its proceedings, be they specialisms from doctors, trade unionists, teachers, lawyers, nurses and so on. All individuals who belong to such groups are now careful to the point of inaction not to represent their group interests. Not so in the House of Lords where such specialist knowledge is treasured. Given that the Commons has stripped out this form of representation from its proceedings, might not we strengthen it in our Parliamentary system? Might not this idea of representation be the starting point for Lords reforms rather than trying to impose a form of election on the Lords which is most appropriate to the Commons?
A radical Lords reform could be based on seeking the representation of all the major legitimate interest groups in our society and of using the idea of the ‘Big Society’ as a means of strengthening how representation works in our democracy. There would be a need, of course, to establish a Reform Commission with the duty to begin mapping out which group interests should gain representation, and at what strength. So, for example, the Commission would put forward proposals on which groups would have seats to represent local authorities and voluntary interests, to represent women’s organisations and interests, the interest of trade unions, employers, industrialists and businesses, the cultural interest of writers, composers as well as the interests of the professions including those involved in health and
learning. The representation specifically of local authority associations would ensure that the different regions of the country have voices in the Upper Chamber. And so the list would go on with the seats for Anglican bishops shared between other denominations and faiths.
The Commission’s second task would be to approve the means by which each group elects or selects its own representatives. The Commission should be encouraged to approve a diversity of forms of election, rather than simply enforcing that which has been accepted by the Commons. Some groups already elect their group representatives. Other groups might wish to adopt a form of indirect election.
Reform of the House of Lords along these lines offers this Parliament a last chance to rebuild within our system one of the key meanings that has until recently been given to the term ‘representative’. It would be a reform that resulted in giving legislative power to the ‘Big Society’, which has sought to act as a bulwark against a too powerful state. It would be a reform that strengthened our democracy without setting the Commons and Lords into a state of near permanent political warfare. And it would be a reform that might, for the first time, enthuse the electorate with the politics of constitutional change.
You can download the full collection of essays by clicking here: Our House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords