Britain’s most messed-up ‘elections’ are about to restart

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 11th June 2021

Six aristocrats will join the House of Lords over the next month, following the announcement of candidates for Britain’s most warped election.

Just a few dozen aristocrats will decide who can sit in the House of Lords – voting on legislation for the rest of their lives, if they choose to do so.

It’s nice work if you can get it, and the application process is easy. You just need to submit a manifesto of less than 75 words and schmooze a few voters. You must also be on the official register of aristocrats. Oh, and the voters you must schmooze are a handful of hereditary peers.

The new Lord Speaker – Lord McFall – has expressed his opposition to these by-elections, but peers recently opted to restart them. It seems a case of slightly odd priorities, when we were still in the midst of a global pandemic.

One of the themes of this weekend’s G7 gathering will be ‘taking action against democratic threats’. It is not clear how a tenth of the UK’s revising chamber being selected on the basis of bloodline tallies with this. Democracy in Westminster is a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

But the fact that in 2021, hereditary aristocrats are still guaranteed a hold over in our parliament is beyond baffling.

How did we get here? The 1999 House of Lords Act removed all but 92 hereditary peers, in what was intended to be a temporary compromise. Subsequently, vacancies that result from death or – since minor changes in 2014 and 2015, retirement, resignation or exclusion – are filled through a so-called by-election.

These aristocrats are chosen by party groups of current hereditary peers, from an official list of aristocrats. There are no female hereditary peers, and just one woman eligible to stand. And several of these so-called by-elections have had turnouts of just three voters.

The continuation of hereditary peer by-elections means that around 12% of the second chamber’s lawmakers are there purely down to the circumstance of their birth, eternally locked to the percentage party make-up of hereditary peers when many of them were booted out in the 1990s.

Ministers and peers need to back legislation – which is ready to go – to end this absurd practice. At the moment, a handful of aristocrats are picking who can vote on our laws and claim expenses for life, on the basis of birth-right.

It is ignoring a simple principle accepted across the world: voters should decide who votes on our laws, with a fair, proportional voting system.

Instead, the Lords are making a mockery of voters. Take for example, the fact that hereditary peers have repeatedly filibustered – literally talked out of time – attempts to end the practice. It proves the point that these positions aren’t just constitutional baubles: they are powerful roles that can powerfully shape and change legislation in the UK.

Ending these absurd by-elections must be a first step towards ensuring we have real democracy here  – with a revising chamber that is fit for purpose, and accountable to the public.

Read the ERS’ latest briefing on hereditary peers.

Sign our petition so the public, not aristocrats, elect the House of Lords

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