Even in today’s climate, hereditary peer by-elections are among the more absurd aspects of British politics. Following the retirement of the Earl of Selborne from the House of Lords after almost 50 years in office, another one of these elections is now due.
However, joining the Olympics, the Premier League and Glastonbury festival, this is set to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After a debate in parliament this week, this was agreed until 8th September, just over six months away, with the bill receiving almost unanimous support in the Lords.
If we can afford to delay this hereditary by-election for six months, why not make it permanent? While a by-election may sound like it makes the House of Lords slightly more representative and democratic than the male, pale and stale establishment it currently is, only hereditary peers (totally around 216 on the current Register) are allowed to vote.
In the last by-election, only 28 votes were cast for a peer now eligible to sit in the House of Lords for the rest of his life and claim up to £323 a day for doing so. This compares to an average House of Commons by-election which sees over 1000 times that at 28,825.
Just like their by-elections, hereditary peers are a testament to the House of Lords being a private members’ club for an elite few. Removing these by-elections would be the first step in a list of reforms desperately needed to be made by the House of Lords.
Second only to China as the world’s largest legislative body, the House of Lords as it stands is an outdated, unelected institution that is totally unrepresentative of modern British society. It is time that these bizarre, undemocratic by-elections were finally postponed for good. There is something fundamentally wrong with a chamber making laws that affect voters’ lives when many members who sit in it do so on the basis of conspicuous wealth, elected in by their equally wealthy chums.
As shown by events this week, hereditary peer by-elections are neither an essential nor indeed desirable element of British politics. This global pandemic has resulted in unprecedented times for the government and its people; it is now time for this to extend to reforms of the House of Lords.