Elizabeth Anderson: A plan for politics that won't help

Jeremy Corbyn seems to think he has a plan.  Which is nice, but I'm not entirely sure what he's setting out to achieve.  His plan is to get rid of the House of Lords, and create an elected chamber.  This idea bobs up every now and then.  He also plans to create new 'citizens assemblies'.


I'm far from a fan of an elected upper chamber.  The current system is, indeed, out of hand.  But that has more to do with the culture that has taken over, rather than the system.  Whilst personally I wouldn't be too sorry to head back to a chamber of hereditary peers, there is an inherently good idea about elevating people with very specific skills and experience into a House of Lords which then provides a broad range of skills bases.  They don't necessarily need to be popular, they don't necessarily need to be well known.  They don't need to sell themselves and have the PR patter, with a campaign team and a leaflet that is better than the next person's.  They actually just need to know what they are doing and be recognised for that talent - science, law, education, industry, charitable services - the list goes on.  It's a nice idea that someone's skills should speak for themselves, but if that was the case election campaigning wouldn't have evolved in the way it has. 

People have lost confidence in the House of Lords system because it has started to be seen less as a job and more as a reward and a title.  It's the next one up from a Knighthood for a jolly good chap who has done something seemingly good (actually it isn't, the next one up from a Knight Bachelor is a KBE, but you the idea).  To make someone a Lord or a Baroness actually means to put them into a powerful position where they scrutinise legislation from the House of Commons and the government, and holds them to account through our system of checks and balances.  They too can introduce laws.  This is all really rather important and we need to get back to the point - which isn't elevating friends to the peerage.  And recent events have done no favours for maintaining the status quo.

But an elected system isn't the answer.  We have an elected system.  It's called the House of Commons.  That is the elected element.

But even election doesn't seem enough for Jeremy.  Because he wants citizens assemblies.  Except we have those.  Those are local councils.  Councillors are not strange, elite beings.  At least from the Conservative side, a good many of them have come from a range of different backgrounds and professions.  They are definitely citizens, they definitely assemble.  People who aren't Councillors can ask public questions.  It's not perfect, but I truly don’t think any political system can be. 

Yes there is a definite need to interest more people in politics, but having an assembly where people are randomly invited to turn up will not solve that issue.  What it means, in reality, is that people who are already interested in politics and happen to be available will turn up.  And how many of us have been to one public meeting, realised what a public meeting is like, and been glad when it's over?  

Because, and let's be fairly honest here, there are particular types of people love a good public meeting, have time to attend a public meeting at any time of day or evening, and like to hold court on not very big issues.  In reality, public meetings (which is what a citizens assembly basically is, with a big invitation list) attract particular groups of people, which sadly aren't representative of the public.  Make a public meeting at 7pm near my home, I'll still be firmly on the train.  Make it 8pm when commuters are available (if they aren't working late/too tired/more interested in finding a DVD), and parents will be tucking the kids in.  Make it through the day when stay at home mothers are available, people will be out at work.  Unless you make it compulsory to attend (and compulsory for employers to give you freebie time off to attend), you can't ever really get a cross section of people.  

Tinkering with the systems in place won't solve anything.  What will help, massively, is building trust and making politics relevant.  And every time someone does something silly, like claiming there are no seats on a train filled with empty seats - for the sake of publicity, for example, it all just makes it that little bit harder for everyone.

Elizabeth Anderson is a committed Conservative from south east London, and has held a number of positions in the voluntary and youth wings of the party. She works for a prestigious institution in London, and became involved in politics with the aim of spreading Conservative values.

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