Hereditary peer ‘by-election’: Campaigners condemn ‘undemocratic farce’ as all-male hereditary peerage by-election begins

Posted on the 16th November 2018

ERS: 90 seats in Parliament are effectively reserved for men, a week ahead of centenary of women’s right to stand for the Commons.

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, for immediate release, 13th November 2018
  • Spokespeople are available for interview and further comment. Contact
  • For comment on the findings against Lord Lester, see bottom of PR

Campaigners have described the state of the House of Lords as a ‘laughing stock’, as voting begins for the current hereditary peer ‘by-election’ to replace retired crossbencher Lord Northbourne [1].

As a Crossbench Peer, Lord Northbourne’s replacement will be selected by hereditary peers of the Crossbench group – 31 in total – with the election ending on 27th November. There are 11 candidates to just 31 voters. All but the sole hereditary peer Countess Mar are men.

Eligible candidates are drawn from the Register of Hereditary Peers held by the Clerk of Parliaments. This list contains any hereditary peer who has expressed an interest in standing in a by-election [2].

Next Wednesday marks the centenary of some winning the right to stand for election to the Commons [3]. Yet out of 211 on the hereditary peerage register, there is only one woman – effectively reserving the 90 electable hereditary seats in the House of Lords for men.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“These elections make a laughing stock of Parliament. This time round there are 11 candidates for just 31 voters: ‘absurd’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“A tiny clique will decide which aristocrat remains in Parliament to vote on our laws, for the rest of their lives. That’s not democracy.

“In the centenary year of women winning the right to stand for the Commons, it is a gross injustice that 90 seats in Parliament are effectively reserved for men.

“It’s time we called it a day on this bizarre experiment. The government must back Lord Grocott’s reform bill as the first step towards a fairly-elected Lords. Let’s end this silly side-show once and for all.

“Scrapping this absurd convention should be the first step to wholescale reform of the House of Lords into a fairly-elected and representative second chamber.”

Earlier this year, government peer Lord Young said the PM will not seek to obstruct Lord Grocott’s Bill passing through Parliament, which aims to end hereditary peer by-elections at last.

Lord Lester comment

The Daily Mirror report today that Lord Lester has claimed nearly £10,000 in the year since an official complaint was made against him. Lord Lester is alleged to have said to the complainant: “If you sleep with me I will make you a Baroness.”

Commenting, Dr Jess Garland, Director of Research and Policy for the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“This is a shocking case of abuse of position and power in the Lords.

“That it is up to Lords themselves to decide whether their fellow Peers stay or go is just another absurd fact about the unelected second chamber.

“It is a depressing reality in this case and others that peers can continue to claim thousands of pounds while barely contributing to the work of the Lords – including those under investigation for serious misconduct.

“Peers found guilty by House can return as if nothing happened in four years – and continue to vote on our laws for life. Meanwhile voters have absolutely no say. This is a constitutional joke for what is suppose to be a modern, democratic country.

“No legislator should be able to exploit the system while avoiding the scrutiny of voters at the ballot box.”


The 1999 House of Lords Act removed all but 90 of the hereditary peers (plus holders of the offices of Earl Marshall and Lord Great Chamberlain) – 92 in total. 667 hereditary peers lost their right to sit in the Lords in these reforms.

Subsequently, vacancies that result from death (or retirement, resignation or exclusion since the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015) are filled by by-election.

By-elections take place within party groups (except for 15 hereditary peers, originally elected to serve as office holders, whose successors are elected by the whole house). These party groups reflected the proportion of party affiliation at the time of the 1999 reforms. There are 47 Conservative hereditary peers, 4 Labour, 4 Liberal Democrat, 31 Crossbench hereditary peers, 1 UKIP, and 2 non-affiliated). See full breakdown here.

Hereditary by-elections – the figures

Elections to the House of Lords use the Alternative Vote. The first hereditary by-election was held in 2003 following the death of Viscount Oxford.

According to ERS analysis (June 2018):

  • Hereditary by-elections have an average of just 29 voters (excluding elections of the whole house). This compares to an average of 29,116 votes cast over the last 32 Commons by-elections – a larger democratic mandate by a factor of 1,000.
  • The average electorate for normal hereditary by-elections is just 32 (188 including whole-house elections).
  • 3,190 votes have been cast in total for the 32 peers elected in hereditary peer by-elections since 2003. By contrast, 931,725 votes have been cast in the last 32 House of Commons by-elections.
  • At its highest, the electorate has been 803, at its lowest just three.
  • Four by-elections have had more candidates than electors, including the only by-election within the Labour group of hereditary peers – for which there were 11 candidates and only 3 voters (30th October 2003).
  • The average turnout for by-elections is 83%. Three by-elections have had 100% turnout (all of which have had an electorate of four or fewer).


Notes to Editors

[2] See the ERS’ July 2018 briefing on hereditary peer by-elections:

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