by Nick Trench
The public we understand are angry. How about then 50 of these angry men and women sitting in parliament without having to go through the standard rigmarole of becoming an MP? I would like to propose, on an experimental basis, that a group of about 30-50 people drawn by lottery from the whole country should sit in the House of Lords. Each person would sit for three years and entrance would be staggered.
This takes forward one step the current suggestions recently made in the national press (for instance the Guardian and the Sunday Times) that citizens’ juries could be used within government structures – a demonstration in itself of how far into the mainstream the idea of citizens’ juries has now proceeded.
The idea is of course not new – it was even included, more for the sake of thoroughness than anything else, in the 1999 House of Lords reform consultation paper. I myself put forward this proposal over ten years ago (Hansard, March 30, 1999) in the Lords during the last period of parliamentary reform debate. I was the first – and, I believe, still the only member of parliament – to recommend a random selection of members within parliament as a serious step forward in further democratising the parliamentary process. (I, as a hereditary peer, outside the safe confines of the Labour Party, also in the same debate signalled my intention of voting for the removal of the hereditaries).
Much of the talk at the moment is of involving citizens’ juries in government decision-making, rather than having citizens as actual members. But there is a crucial difference here between government and parliament. In one sense government is already strong enough if (without proportional representation) certainly not fair enough; it is parliament as a whole that needs to be invigorated. Power has moved both outwards and inwards – outwards to the constituencies where constituents, starved of the strong local government seen for example in German cities, demand more and more of their MPs. Inwards as party executives (including central government) create an ever greater stranglehold on the parties and also therefore on the MPs, and ignore parliament entirely. MPs are therefore pulled in both directions, leaving a vacuum at the ‘centre’. Strangely therefore despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, torn between the entreaties of their constituents and a blind loyalty to their party there is little room in a sense for MPs to ‘be themselves’.
The issue is not one of accountability but of presentation. It is perhaps self-evident now the degree to which the main political parties are like families with all their consequent loyalties and tendency to look inwards, with the members of these families loyal first and foremost to the ‘family’ cause, but we do not ponder on the degree to which this has a deleterious effect on parliament. Parliament should be a palpably exciting place where MPs ought to be freely debating and formulating their own beliefs within the chamber itself. Yet, because of its largely safe and mechanistic atmosphere, we are left with a parliament that has become commented on and scrutinised less and less in the same forensic detail that it used to be even twenty years ago. A dangerous situation as so much can get by without proper public ratification or debate.
What struck me very quickly after my arrival in the Lords in 1996 was that while fellow MPs in both houses would privately demonstrate often sophisticated and complex views on the issue of the day, views expressed in the chamber and in the lobby rarely properly reflected these – I would say more honest – arguments. This was less so in the Lords where individuals – particularly the Crossbenchers – could to a greater extent argue and vote according to their own thoughts and conscience. (Of course there are the so-called mavericks and backbench rebellions – but mavericks by their very nature are scarce and backbench rebellions are rare, and safety is sought in numbers.)
We desperately need a parliament where there are at least a significant number of people who are able to ‘be themselves’ – who are there not as ‘experts’ or through the patronage, in any way, of the political parties, who have no interests other than in presenting themselves and their own views. In short we need ‘presentatives’ as much as ‘re-presentatives’. One clear way in which this can be achieved is through having a citizens’ jury element.
The manner in which the public’s attitude to politicians has changed over the last few decades backs up this argument. It has changed from being a regard for them as authority figures who did a difficult job and (like royalty) deserved all the perks they got, to a belief that they are our servants who ought to act in the same manner as we should ourselves ideally like to (not quite yet as we do). Having taken politicians off their pedestals, we are, little by little, getting closer to saying they are actually us.
We can become very complacent in a western democracy with regard to our political process, although it is at times like this when this complacency is questioned. Democracy is still something we don’t yet by any means have – how can it be when the ordinary citizen’s only real connection with politics is through the vote, important though that is? Democracy is still a goal whose form we probably even do not know yet. The traditional childrens’s book view of the nascent parliament is of the humble subject making representations to the king on behalf of their own village. A future scenario might – however that may achieved – with no king or any other authorities present – simply be ourselves talking to ourselves, no different to a discussion amongst any of us at a bar or around the dinner table today, a discussion that is free for everyone in the land to join in – but one that is happening right at the centre of things.