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Mon 20 May 2019
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Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of the charity Turning Point and crossbench peer in the House of Lords, questions whether Britain actually is a democracy.

I am sitting and writing this in a great bastion of the British Establishment, the walls thick with books describing the lives of earls, dukes and the entitled going back hundreds of years… the House of Lords library.

One of the paintings sums up this place in the minds of many: a packed Lords chamber filled to the rafters with white men, many wearing top hats, the more casual in full morning suits, some lounging against the benches while others look to the issues of the day. Below the picture is a key to each of the portraits with names and titles. This 18th Century who’s who of the great and good is a realistic portrait of entitlement and unelected power.

Democracy and the House of Lords do not make for easy bedfellows. The titles are an anachronism in a world where privilege is reserved for the wealthy as opposed to the ennobled. It isn’t fashionable to be called Lord Adebowale in the circles I move in. The title these days invokes the idea of a person who has either bought or inveigled their way into an unelected chamber to influence the laws of the land.

While it’s only fair to point out that there are those in the Lords who have earned the respect of their profession and the nation through hard work and diligence, such that they may be thought deserving of their titles, isn’t the very existence of the Lords antithetical to democracy? 

As former Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, “those making the laws of the land should be elected”, with the survival of the second chamber being “an act of the Establishment resistant to change”. I was in the room when Mr Clegg made this speech and it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience.

The House of Lords has been the very leitmotif at the centre of debates about democracy that have raged around us over the last few years. There has been a rise of movements outside the parliamentary process that have used the parliamentary process as the very reason for their existence. Parliament has been criticised as being the opposite of democracy, with the House of Lords sitting at the centre of the argument, while the House of Commons is considered to be out of touch with the people it is there to represent.

Sitting in the House of Lords library offers me the opportunity to think about how democracy in the UK actually operates, and how it should operate.

Democracy from the Greek demokratia literally means ‘rule by the people’. In modern times, this has meant the act of voting. In a representative democracy, such as the one we enjoy, we elect our representatives to the House of Commons through a simple majority. At the level of local government, this system is repeated in the election of councillors at various levels and forms from parish to county councils. I vote, therefore I am democratic.

The House of Lords is different. Membership is by appointment in five ways. By party leadership, in which case you take your seat as a peer alongside your fellow party’s members or you are appointed by the Queen. There are the so-called People’s Peers – people who applied for the job, who were interviewed by a panel and whose names were then put forward to be appointed by the Queen. There are peers by birth, who have inherited their titles and who sit in the House as a direct result of an ancient right to do so (these inherited peers were effectively abolished by the New Labour Government, however, on the death of a current inherited peer, the vacancy to the House of Lords can be filled from a number of inherited peers, via an election held by the current peers). Finally, there are the Lords Spiritual, bishops of the Church of England, whom by dint of their ecclesiastical position, may take up a seat in the Lords. Five ways of becoming a peer with not a representative election in sight.

At this point, I feel I should be getting my jacket (not Ermine lined) and leaving you. I am a member of an unelected institution. I am undemocratic in taking part in being a member. Indeed I am, alongside my fellow peers,
“enemies of the people”.

However, before I go, I want to pose a question about the act of voting and its association with what our democracy is or has become. The question I have in my mind is this: if democracy is fundamentally about the act of voting then was Iraq under Saddam Hussein a democracy? The country had near 100 per cent turnouts for elections (albeit for one party, the Ba’ath party). Russia under Vladimir Putin has elections with a high turnout. Is it democratic? In its Presidential Election in March, Mr Putin won 77 per cent of the vote. There were also at least seven parties to choose from. At the ballot box, Saddam and Putin received endorsements Theresa May could only dream of. However, voting alone doesn’t denote a democracy.

In the UK, the freedom to vote is a given, in fact, it is the expectation of a mature citizen. We have more than one party to vote for in national elections and complex issues to consider before casting one’s vote. The extent to which many of the issues driving how people might vote is curated by media debate is highly controlled. Newspapers, with very few exceptions, tell the same stories from a particular point of view. Certainly the popular newspapers would argue that they reflect the opinions of their readers, but so often they reinforce bias and stoke prejudice. Commentators and reporters on the views of the day invariably represent the opinions of a singular class of people, often the media outlet’s backers. 

The application of wealth to control the debate was apparent in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum and in the machinations of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. We now know that these digital platforms appear to have played a significant part in shaping and controlling debate. It is not without irony that Nick Clegg, the opponent of unelected power, has gone on to become the chief voice of the Facebook empire, as its head of global policy and communications, which, along with Twitter and Youtube, many see as the unelected controllers and influencers of debate. It appears it is now possible to buy the debate itself and virtually predict its outcome – something Damien Collins MP, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, investigating the actions of Facebook, might fear.

A steady diet of a singular view, with the exception of one or two outlets that attempt nuance in the search for truth, creates the equivalent of a Phil Spector-like wall of sound; a pleasant even uplifting cacophony in which any single instrument, however beautifully played, is drowned out. It’s not the people who find the noise pleasant or who might wish for more who are to blame, it’s the composers. The broadcaster James O’ Brien is a case in point. His LBC weekday programme is an oasis of rational common sense and adult-to-adult debate. He regularly attracts over a million listeners from all walks of life, class, race and gender, but this is dwarfed by the readership of a well-known tabloid title which often dominates the agenda.

So, is a country with a vote, but where debate is significantly curtailed, controlled or subdued, a democracy at all?

Democracy confined to the act of voting is only half the story. It is also a process in which citizens should be involved beyond simply the act of voting in elections every four years. But, without the necessary conditions for nuanced, evidence-based and pluralistic debate, do we have a democracy? The vote is an important full stop to the process of debate; a way of closing the hearing of diverse views in a way that is seen as acceptable to all holders of these views.

If democracy is a process, then it consists of the act of voting preceded by meaningful debate and engagement by citizens – the two need to be given equal attention and seen as equally important in a functioning democracy.

Difficult as it is to return to the library of the House of Lords, I find myself thinking how the House of Lords and the House of Commons might together actually represent a functioning democracy. The House of Commons represents the act of voting, it has the whip and it concludes the national debate. The House of Lords is a debating chamber and its power is rightfully curtailed by the elected chamber.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not defending the men in top hats. Far from it. Nor am I arguing that the status quo should not be challenged (that wouldn’t be democratic). Parliament might well be accused of being out of touch with the people – after all, 1 in 12 of its members are the sons or daughters of former MPs. Nor would I argue that the five ways in which one might become a peer are appropriate in the 21st Century.

The traditions of the House of Lords, carried out by men in tights, are archaic but this isn’t as offensive as the levels of ignorance, bigotry or poverty in the UK that pass without report or credible debate. I am not in a hurry to dismiss what the two houses represent together, but it is the quality of this process that should be the subject of a national debate.

While these two houses stand together they act as a reminder of what democracy is. They provide the urgency that remind us all of how important it is to have a meaningful debate about the society in which we live.

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