Hereditary peerage system branded an ‘undemocratic farce’, as analysis shows aristocrats still deciding who sits in Lords

Posted on the 4th July 2018

Research by the Electoral Reform Society on hereditary peer by-elections reveals ‘absurd state of affairs’ in the second chamber, with research timed to coincide with the election result.

New analysis shows members of the House of Lords are being elected by a tiny clique of aristocrats, despite cross-party calls to modernise the chamber.

Two ‘hereditary peer by-elections’ are underway, with the results for a Crossbench vacancy to be announced on Wednesday (4th June) following the retirement of Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. Just 31 peers have had the chance to vote.

The result is announced in the middle of the Cabinet Office’s inaugural National Democracy Week – established to promote the idea [1] that: “Regardless of who we are or where we are from, we must work together to ensure that every member of society has an equal chance to participate in our democracy and to have their say.”

On Monday the candidate list was published for the Conservative by-election currently taking place – with 11 candidates for 47 voters. Manifestos include: ‘Succeeded grandfather, Harold Macmillan’, ‘always happy to serve,’ and ‘An outsider to Westminster politics – excluding two terms as local councillor and National Chairman of the Conservative Rural Forum’.

New analysis published by the Electoral Reform Society to coincide with the by-election shows that:

  • The average electorate for normal hereditary by-elections is just 32 (188 including whole-house elections [2]). 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 three voters
  • The average turnout for by-elections is 83%, with an average of 29 voters for ‘normal’ by-elections. (The figure is 100 including whole-house elections). That compares to an average of 29,116 votes cast over the last 32 Commons by-elections – a greater democratic mandate by a factor of 1,000.
  • 3,190 votes have been cast in the history of hereditary peer by-elections for 32 peers – compared to the last 32 Commons by-elections, where 931,725 votes have been cast

Legislation under New Labour removed the vast majority of hereditary peers from the Lords – but 92 still remain, making up nearly 12% of those eligible to vote in the House of Lords.

When one dies or retires a by-election is held. Candidates are drawn from a register of hereditary peers [2] – with only one woman on the list – and in most cases only current members of the House of Lords from the same political group are entitled to vote [3].

Some of these elections have been particularly undemocratic. When Viscount Thurso was elected to replace the late Lord Avebury in 2016, the three Liberal Democrat Lords entitled to vote were selecting from a list of just seven candidates.

The Electoral Reform Society are campaigning for these by-elections to be scrapped as part of the first step towards a ‘fully reformed’ second chamber.

The Society are the government to fulfill its pledge for change, following comments by Conservative frontbencher Lord Young of Cookham that the government “will not obstruct” a Bill by Lord Grocott seeking to axe the by-elections [4].

The last time the Bill was heard, it was blocked/filibustered by a handful of hereditary peers, who tabled around 60 amendments to ‘talk out’ the legislation – a move condemned as ‘disgraceful’ by democracy campaigners. The Society say it shows the continued power of hereditary privilege in our Parliament [5].

The analysis from the ERS follows the Prime Minister’s appointment of thirteen new peers in May, in an announcement ‘cynically timed’ to coincide with the royal wedding [6].

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

“These so-called by-elections are an undemocratic farce – and make mockery of our democracy. The fact we will find out the results of one of these sham elections during ‘National Democracy Week’ is an irony that can’t be ignored.

“At its highest, the electorate for one of these faux elections has been 803, and at its lowest, just three. At least four by-elections have had more candidates than electors, and we frequently see one candidate for every four voters.

“Just a handful of hereditaries are continuing to pick their fellow aristocrats to join Parliament to vote on our laws, for the rest of their lives. That is not democracy – and it’s time we ended this charade. Brits deserve a democracy fit for the 21st century – not feudal times. There is overwhelming support for change – we cannot allow this group to stymie it any longer.

“It’s vital for trust and faith in our democracy that these current ‘by-elections’ will be the last. The public should decide who votes on our laws – not a tiny clique of barons and viscounts.

“We welcome the assertion by government peer Lord Young that the PM will not seek to obstruct the Bill passing through Parliament which aims to end hereditary peer by-elections at last.

“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.”

Click here to read a full briefing on House of Lords by-elections which data on all the by-elections held since 2013. 


Notes to EditorsMore information available here:



There have been 16 by-elections held since 2013. In 13 of these the electorate was restricted to a particular grouping within the chamber. In the other three, the entire chamber was entitled to vote. The entire chamber forms the electorate when one of 15 hereditary peers, originally elected to serve as office holders, are being replaced.





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