Hereditary peer by-election shows House of Lords is a ‘feudal relic’ ripe for overhaul

Posted on the 24th January 2019

Campaigners have called for an overhaul of the House of Lords following the addition of a new hereditary peer to the chamber on Wednesday [1]. 

Conservative Lord Reay – an investment banker whose great-grandad’s cousin’s dad’s fourth cousin’s dad’s cousin’s great-great-great-grandad was made a Lord in 1628 [2] – has secured a seat in the House of Lords following a hereditary peer ‘by-election’.

The 15th Lord Reay can now vote on our laws and claim £305 a day after securing just over 100 votes from peers in a system branded a “mockery of our democracy”. 

The Electoral Reform Society have published new analysis on the ‘undemocratic travesty’ of the bizarre process.

It follows a row last week over Speaker Bercow potentially being denied a peerage for letting MPs have more say over the Brexit process. Meanwhile defeated former MP Nicola Blackwood joined the Lords this month so she could be made a health minister – despite losing the confidence of voters.

Eligible candidates for hereditary seats are drawn from the Register of Hereditary Peers held by the Clerk of Parliaments. This list contains eligible aristocrats who have expressed an interest in standing in a by-election (see here). There is just one woman on the list.  

The latest so-called by-election was called following the death of Lord Skelmersdale on 31 October 2018. As one of the 15 hereditary peers elected by the whole house in 1999, his replacement is ‘elected’ by the whole house.

There were 16 candidates in this by-election and 785 peers were eligible to vote. To date, turnout at the seven by-elections where the whole house was eligible to vote has only averaged around 48% – meaning around 400 Lords are likely to have chosen who can vote on our laws for life.

New ERS research shows this compares to an average of 28,823 votes cast over the last 35 Commons by-elections.

In 2018, 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. Yet the Bill has still not received a date for its Report Stage.

Hereditary by-elections: the figures

  • The 35 hereditary by-elections to date have had an average turnout of just 28 voters, excluding the elections by the whole house (the average is 94 including whole house elections).
    • This compares to an average of 28,823 votes cast over the last 35 Commons by-elections – a larger democratic mandate by a factor of 1,000.
  • Excluding whole house elections, the average electorate for ‘normal’ by-elections is just 32 (this is 175 if we include whole house elections).
  • 3,288 votes have been cast in total for the 35 peers elected in hereditary by-elections since 2003.
    • By contrast, over a million – 1,008,808 – votes have been cast in the last 35 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. This includes the only by-election within the Labour group of hereditary peers for which there were 11 candidates and only three voters (30th October 2003).
  • The average turnout for by-elections is 84%. Three by-elections have had 100% turnout…all of which have had an electorate of four or fewer.

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

“While MPs debate what ‘taking back control’ really means, Lords have picked a hereditary aristocrat to vote on our laws for life.

“These so-called by-elections would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high. These people can hold a huge sway over legislation and the issues that affect all of our lives.

“It’s about time we abolished this absurd practice and gave the public a say over who sits in our second chamber. The absurdity cannot go on – four of these ludicrous by-elections have had more candidates than voters.

“The latest saga over Speaker Bercow being potentially denied a peerage shows the House of Lords is a topsy-turvy place where aristocrats are rewarded and places are granted or denied at the whim of the government.

“And after losing her seat as an MP in 2017, Nicola Blackwood joined the Lords this month so she could become a health minister.

“A real problem with peers is that voters can’t kick them out – but it turns out that being rejected by the voters is no barrier to joining in the first place.

“This private members’ club is in drastic need of an overhaul. One thing unites this country right now – frustration with a centralised, out-of-touch Westminster. Nothing represents that as much as the feudal relic that is the House of Lords.”




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 – since the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 – retirement, resignation or exclusion are filled through a by-election.

By-elections take place within party groups – except for 15 hereditary peers, such as Lord Skelmersdale, 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, four Labour, four Liberal Democrat and 31 Crossbench hereditary peers (one UKIP, one non-affiliated). See full breakdown here.

There is only one female hereditary peer currently sitting in the House of Lords (the Countess of Mar).

Notes to Editors



Info on the by-election including candidates and their statements

Lord Grocott bill

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