Parliament represents the people. But the House of Commons represents us in only one dimension of our lives. It divides us by territory. It asks us to elect our national representatives according to where our flats or houses are – in other words where we spend the night. What, though, about what we do with the rest of our time? Our leisure, our faith, our social commitments, most importantly, our work?
Representative democracy is about electing people to speak on behalf of our interests. Place is important. But something strange has happened in the last century, where we’ve begun imagine our interests are solely reducible to the where we live. Democracy is surely something wider. It’s about every aspect of our lives being represented where there is power. In a plural society, representing the diversity of our lives seems ever more vital.
House of Lords reform gives us the chance to do something about this. We need a democratic upper house. The second chamber should be a place where the people have a real say, unlike now. But for it to simply mirror the Commons, with a few tweaks to the electoral system (longer terms, bigger constituencies), will be a disaster. We’ll lose the one thing the current House of Lords offers: the representation of people with real experience. Life peerages haven’t just been granted to tired old political hacks (although there are a few of those), but people who’ve been successful in different walks of life.
What’s the answer? My friends involved in Blue Labour have argued we need a second chamber which represents the vocations not the places of the nation. That would mean every profession and occupation electing its representatives. Lawyers and doctors would vote, as would cleaners, full-time parents, and people out of work. Faith could be represented in its diversity, as well as the other things people care about – sport and culture, for example. This powerful new house of vocation would be a place of expertise and skill. It would be a house full of people who knew something about something. It’d be full of people who’d be directly affected by every new law for the first time.
To create this House of Vocation would be hard. There would be arguments about who which groups need representing by how many peers. But I’m not sure it’d be any more bitter than the argument about boundary changes. And the conversation would be a focus for debate about who, and what as a nation we are.
At the moment, the current debate on Lords reform looks like a squabble within a political elite. Under Nick Clegg’s proposals, the second house would end up as a shadow of the Commons. It’d be place where B-list politicians get rested, a house where parties put people who can’t get into the main show. The reformers have forgotten that our democratic deficit isn’t about how we elect our politicians, but who often they are – a narrow, out of touch class. The answer isn’t to abandon democracy but expand it, to make sure we have a parliament that represents all walks of life.