Freddie Sayers

Why a politician-free House of Lords is the only democratic solution

Why a politician-free House of Lords is the only democratic solution
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In my business, there’s a lot of fretting about the idea of representativeness. Pollsters put questions to, say, a thousand people – and take them as a sample of the country. How to be sure that you have the right sample? You need the right number of men, women, northerners, middle class, Lib Dem voters etc – but that’s the easy part. Your method of selection matters hugely, and it can skew the sample in other, less tangible ways. Every pollster is vulnerable to this so-called 'selection bias’ . If you survey people on high streets, for example, you'll get people tend to be out-and-about - rather than at home. If you survey people online (as YouGov does) you need to take steps to make sure that you’re not over sampling web enthusiasts.

One of the many theories behind the pollsters' collective failure to predict the general election outcome is that, these days, people who answer any kind of pollsters' questions may be more politically engaged. So the pollsters might have missed a great swathe of voters who don't really care – but, in the end, voted Tory.

The House of Commons is intended to represent the country, but as anyone who has ever met a politician will tell you, MPs are a strange and very particular breed of human being. If you think you need to be weird to bother answering an opinion poll, think how weird you need to be to spend years buttering up local party officials and then putting yourself forward in a popularity contest in which you are almost guaranteed to be disliked. It takes a very particular mixture of conviction and egotism - and once you throw in the discipline and learned habits the result is that MPs are nothing like ordinary people. Even if they represented the country in terms of gender and social class (which they don't) there would still be this fatal flaw - in terms of politicianness they are all drawn from one particular group of society.

As the life of a politician has become comparatively less attractive, with less pay and more media scrutiny, they become less and less representative. As a group, they seem more and more alien to most people. And, also, more susceptible to certain political fashions and orthodoxies.

Politicians tend to be blissfully unaware of this selection bias. On the topic of the proper place of politics in society, MPs are the worst possible group to survey – so they’re the worst sort of people to decide the fate of the House of Lords.

Reforming the upper chamber is one shining opportunity to correct this selection bias. Stuffing the House with unelected former or failed politicians (as happened on Friday) is the worst of both worlds: they're all politicians and they're not even elected. If we had a largely-elected second chamber (perish the thought) we’d have even more politicians. Except that because the Lords doesn’t wield as much power, you’d get an even lower calibre of politicians – think the European Parliament and those nameless, faceless MEPs. The undemocratic tyranny of the political animal over the rest of us would only be bolstered.

So the answer is clear: to make the House of Lords a politician-free zone. By all means keep the bishops, the former generals, scientists like Lord (Robert) Winston. But anyone who has stood for election, or worked in politics, should be automatically disqualified. The Lords should be chosen from leaders across all other walks of society - what is referred to in Westminster as 'real life' - with the express mandate of keeping the political class in check.

Freed from the corrupting element of government patronage, a system for nominating the Lords suddenly looks much more feasible. Impossible though it may be for our MPs' political brains to compute, a politician-free appointed chamber could actually be the most democratic solution.

Freddie Sayers is editor-in-chief of YouGov and a former editor of PoliticsHome