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Lords Out, Peers In!

With the present intent to change the makeup of the House of Lords, there is concern that the NuLab bosses might stock the place with people of their own kind — not an attractive prospect. A major objection to the present House of Lords is that the hereditary peers are there through lottery of birth, not individual ability. One could, however, also argue that non-hereditary peers are there through lottery of patronage; and as for a reformed, elected second chamber being of better quality, one would have to concede that the present crop of MPs are a pretty uninspiring lot, and the party system does consistently throw up some rather odd people….

So an idea was formulated in jest: why not replace an undemocratic lottery with a truly democratic one — have some or all of the members of the second chamber literally selected by lottery? An equal chance for everyone; members could be randomly selected from the voters rolls, perhaps on a regional basis; they could serve a six-year term, with one-third of the house being re-selected every two years. Remuneration would match that of MPs, and of course if someone chose not to serve then a replacement would be drawn.

But, on consideration, is it indeed such a silly notion? Well, there does appear to be some precedent — people can be imprisoned, even for life, if found guilty by a jury selected in not dissimilar fashion….

The basic concept is not new….. (S)Elective Democracy in Ancient Greece
This system developed in the Ancient Greek city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC, through reform of the previous oligarchic system. The reforms were brought about by the Athenian statesman Pericles, to develop the powers and responsibilities of the popular courts and assembly at the expense of the “Areopagus” — the Assembly elected from the oligarch class.

The principal feature of interest was that election of members of the popular assembly — “The Council of the Five Hundred” — and jurors for the popular courts, was by lot from all eligible citizens. The system was not completely democratic in that ‘eligible citizens’ comprised only the adult, male, non-slave, non-foreign section of the population — but is was substantially more representative of the inhabitants of the city-state than the oligarchic assembly, whose membership was based on property-owning criteria.

Payment of jurors in the popular courts of Athens is known from historical sources to have been in operation by the 460s BC, and payment is recorded for Council members by 410 BC. When the Athenians suffered defeat in the Peloponnesian War which ended in 404 BC, that broke their political consensus, and the elective system was discontinued.

Footnote :
A pilot scheme with some similarities is being run in a couple of areas by the National Lottery Charities Board. One member of the Board, meant to represent the ‘common man’, is not directly appointed in the usual way, but instead is selected from the general public (which does raise an interesting question of why the rest are not, given that Lottery funds are supposed to be the public’s own money). A number of people are selected at random from the electoral roll, and invited to apply for the post. A shortlist is drawn up from those who chose to apply, and these on the list are interviewed for the job.
Applied to a second-chamber situation, an application and selection process might seem attractive, combining as it does the benefits of a random system (in providing a wide field of potential candidates and establishing a more-apparent link between those that ‘rule’ and the wider population) with procedures to ensure that a suitably-equipped candidate is chosen. A serious point against this, however, is the fact that such an interview procedure, and the criteria used to evaluate the suitability of candidates, would be prone to the same “people like us” bias and patronage as characterises the present system.


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