23 January 2009

The House of Jurors

To clarify on a comment I made in my post on referenda, I'll spell out my thoughts on the Upper House.

I have mixed feelings about the House of Lords. In principle, I don't like the idea of a legislative body which has its members either appointed by politicians or given their position due to accident of birth. In practice, however, it generally seems to work well. The House of Lords tends to produce decisions which are more rational and considered than those arrived at by the simplisitic populism that seems to dominate the House of Commons.

It's a difficult connundrum to resolve. One one hand, representative democracy has a tendancy to degrade into low brow vote seeking, when the whole point of the system is to ensure that the people making the decisions take a more in depth approach than would be possible with direct democracy. On the other hand any form of democracy requires that no citizen starts off with a greater right to become involved in decision making than any other.

One suggestion for reform of the House of Lords is to make the house an elected one, but with its members elected for a long term, with members being prevented from standing for re-election. Such a system would reduce the tendency for vote seeking and it's one I'd be fairly happy to see being used, but it would have a tendency to mirror the House of Commons, so I wouldn't view it as a perfect check on the lower house.

A more radical solution would be to make use of the institution which has traditionally served as a check on the abuse of power - the jury. I have in mind a situation where 200 people are randomly chosen from the electoral register to serve for four years, with an option to refuse. The appointments could be made a quarter of the house at a time, so that each year, 50 people would leave and be replaced. That would insure that at any time, three quarters of the house would have a least one year's experience, removing the prospect of the lower house taking advantage of a completely inexperienced house.

The house could make use of the courtroom format. Once legislation was approved by the lower house, it would be presented to the upper house by two advocates, one supporting it and one opposing it. Only with the support of both houses would legislation be enacted.

I think it has the main advantages of both election and hereditary appointment. It has the fundamental equality necessary in a democracy, but provides the freedom to make considered decisions free of electoral pressures. It also has one major advantage over both of those system; it creates a house which is truly represntative of the population. One of the issues that politicians have been wrestling with for years is the lack of diversity in the House of Commons, which creates the sense that, while the house is elected, it isn't representative and creates the sense of a political class which isn't really part of us. The only solution which has been attempted so far is positive action, such as women-only shortlists, but forcing candidates on constituencies in that way can make the sense of alienation from the political process even greater. A house of Jurors would not suffer from that issue, as statistically, representation would be in proportion to the gender, race, age range, political views, religion or whatever characteristic you want to pick, of the general population. The only thing which would skew that would be if certain groups were less keen on taking up a seat, but if under-representation is through choice, I don't see that being a problem.

There's no guarantee that the system would work flawlessly and there's no guarantee that the house would show the same calm consideration that the House of Lords tends to, but it would certainly have more democratic legitimacy. If we still believe that the need to be found guilty by a jury of your peers before beng convicted of a crime is the best protection against tyranny, then why not require that a jury of your peers judges a law to be fair before it applies to you?

5 comments:

Tim Worstall said...

This is "sortition".

Long history to it.

Paul Lockett said...

There certainly is. Arguably it has a longer history than election.

Athenian democracy used it in preference to election on the basis that election would result in corruption and I don't think they've ever been proven wrong.

Anonymous said...

The danger I see is that the selection process would soon become corrupted.

Alfred Vella said...

I found this because I was going to propose - A house of Jurors - too!

I did not get as far as the two sides arguing their cases BUT clearly if each citizen can determine the future of an individual in a jury of 12 then what's good enough for 1 at a time should be good enough for all.

As far as corruption is concerned the current parliamentaary system is already corrult and if jury selection can be corrupted then they are not fit for current purposes.

Alfred Vella said...

I found this because I was going to propose - A house of Jurors - too!

I did not get as far as the two sides arguing their cases BUT clearly if each citizen can determine the future of an individual in a jury of 12 then what's good enough for 1 at a time should be good enough for all.

As far as corruption is concerned the current parliamentaary system is already corrult and if jury selection can be corrupted then they are not fit for current purposes.