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Saturday, March 24, 2007

More on the Lords and Electoral Accountability

Tomorrow's Last Sunday's NYT has a nice analysis on the on-going efforts to redesign the upper house of Britain's parliament.  We discussed this issue last week here.  My focus then was Rory Stewart's general ideas about what upper houses are good for.  Now let's consider a more specific detail about the proposal (which the House of Lords has just rejected): to make the House of Lords seats 15-year non-renewable elected terms drawing from party lists instead of life appointments drawn from lists of nobles.

The article quotes Bruce Ackerman's LRB column on the matter (available here) as follows:

“The promise of democratic legitimacy is a sham,” wrote Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, in The London Review of Books. “The bar on re-election strips voters of their basic tool for democratic accountability: the politicians’ fear that their constituents will throw them out of office.” Or, as one Labor legislator, Tom Levitt, said in the House of Commons, “it’s not the election that makes democracy, it’s the re-election.”

There is something fishy about this logic.  To be sure, there may be better democratic institutional designs that would enable the re-election of Lords.  But can it really be considered a move of democratic regression to change from life appointments to 15-year elected terms?   Maybe  British society can only stomach a single change and it is better to hold out for a better option.  But it seems to be going a bit far to call the change a "sham" from the perspective of democracy.

[On a partially related theme, consider the on-going efforts to get US Supreme Court terms to be non-renewable 18 year terms.  The fact of non-renewability can contribute both to independence and democratic accountability.]

In addition, the fact that candidates for the House of Lords would -- under the proposal -- come from party lists is said to diminish from "democracy."  But, on the contrary, one can see the connection to parties as facilitating democratic accountability.  Ackerman's analogy, trying to explain why re-election is important, is instructive here:

Contrast the intransigence of George W. Bush – who is prohibited from running again – to the increasingly rebellious congressional Republicans, who grimly recognise that the president’s policy on Iraq is endangering their re-election in 2008. Even Bush might be more responsive to public disillusionment with the Iraq war if he were contemplating another run for the White House.

But isn't it the case that Bush's behavior will have electoral effects on the party he runs, his term limit notwithstanding?  Democratic accountability is complex and is never as clean as democratic minimalists who focus on "voting the rascals out"  hope.  Indeed, tying Lord behavior to parties may facilitate the very accountability some are looking for through re-election.

Posted by Ethan Leib on March 24, 2007 at 05:12 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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It's wrong to say that the appointments are "drawn from lists of nobles;" the hereditary peers are (almost) all gone. In other words, they aren't nobles until they are appointed. Before that, they're just hacks.

Posted by: Jay | Mar 27, 2007 2:10:37 AM

Ethan --

You wrote: "But can it really be considered a move of democratic regression to change from life appointments to 15-year elected terms?" Of course it can. If you have a purist view of retrospective voting (i.e. believe that voters do not have forward-looking preferences and only vote by assessing outcomes), then an appointed house of lords would be more democratic because its sins could be held against the government at reelection time, while a non-reelectable house could be held against no one.

This is, of course, strongly mitigated by partisan elections. But the point is not entirely lost. Because there is no way to guarantee that the same party controls the house of lords as controls the parliament, this would create confusion for voters according to the purist retrospectivist (although so do long-term appointments, like the Supreme Court or the Fed). Voters would, under this theory, have trouble figuring out who to blame for negative events.

So "can" it? Of course -- it just depends on what theory of voting you find most persuasive.

Posted by: David Schleicher | Mar 25, 2007 10:47:25 AM

If democracy is about implementing the people's will, reelection is the moment of truth. Reelection keeps the focus on what the people think. If instead the goal is to choose the wisest and best among us to serve as lawmakers, then reelection is to be avoided. No reelection allows the elected to choose independently. This boils down to a question of which model of democracy is prefered. Of course, both models are convenient fictions in the face of a party system, making institutional design a difficult problem. As Prof. Leib has pointed out, it might be that the proposed House of Lords system is functionally equivalent to a reelection model. See, e.g., the Electoral College.

Posted by: Archit Shah | Mar 25, 2007 2:05:11 AM

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