The aristocratic by-elections continue to make a mockery out of our democracy 

Sadie Livingston, Communications Placement Student

Posted on the 8th November 2021

On the 9th and 10th November, the House of Lords will be hosting their fifth hereditary peer by-election this year.

The House of Lords Act 1999 led to the removal of all but 90 hereditary peers, plus the holders of the offices of Earl Marshall and Lord Great Chamberlain – in total, 92 hereditary peers remain in the chamber, though only 90 are replaced via by-elections.

Most by-elections take place within party groups, so when a Conservative hereditary peer retires, the remaining Conservative hereditary peers vote on who should take their place. These party groups reflected the proportion of party affiliation at the time of the 1999 reforms of the House of Lords.

The recent vacancy comes after the death of Viscount Simon, one of a group of 15 hereditary peers who were elected by the whole House in 1999. These 15 peers were originally expected to serve as Deputy Speakers or hold other offices in the chamber, but they are no longer expected to.

Under the terms of an informal agreement in the House of Lords, it is expected that this vacancy will be filled by a hereditary peer who will sit as a Labour member of the House. But while Conservative and crossbench by-elections are typically competitive, Keir Starmer’s party have been struggling to find a suitable candidate, with there being a limited number of Labour-supporting aristocrats eligible to stand. 

This lack of candidates makes a mockery of the already absurd system that sees these seats held back for aristocrats to choose one of their own to make our laws for life.

The Labour party have finally found a candidate in David Hacking, 3rd Baron Hacking, who is willing to take up the Labour-allocated seat and take home a handsome £305 a day for the privilege. The 83-year-old barrister was previously a Conservative peer before switching his support to Blair in 1998. 

To add to the confusion, it is only an informal agreement that states the winner should sit as a labour member. Hacking faces slim competition for the seat as he is running against just two other candidates: Thoby Kennet, 3rd Baron Kennet and Anthony Biddulph, 5th Baron Biddulph. Baron Kennet, who runs a PR agency promoting industrial hemp and has consistently tried to be elected as a Liberal Democrat despite claiming a long term allegiance to the Labour Party, while, Baron Biddulph, a former interior designer, is running for the Labour-allocated seat as a Conservative. 

The three candidates have provided short manifestos, with Lord Biddulph submitting a measly 14 words, including that he is “happy to serve if requested”  and Lord Kennet promised to tackle climate change in his wordier pitch of 73 words. Lord Hacking, stated he will help the Labour party adopt “social democratic policies”

These manifestos are a joke to our democracy, with the candidates essentially running on empty platforms that do not represent the interests of the public. 

The absurd election simply encourages desperate aristocrats to adopt party allegiances in order to get back into the House of Lords, with Lord Hacking repeatedly attempting to be elected as a crossbencher over the past two decades. The lack of an appropriate candidate for the Labour-allocated seat has provided a perfecting opportunity for Lord Hacking, convincing him to now support Starmer’s party. 

The last by-election for a Labour seat resulted in Stephen Benn, 3rd Viscount Stansgate, running unopposed. Ironically, he is the son of Tony Benn, who avidly campaigned to get rid of hereditary peerages and was the first peer to give up his title under the Peerages Act of 1963. 

The Labour party have been particularly quiet about the by-elections, with the continued existence of hereditary peers providing some embarrassment and directly contradicting Starmer’s 10 Pledges, which advocates for the abolishment of the House of Lords. 

It is time to get rid of the archaic by-elections and scrap the undemocratic House of Lords altogether. Blair’s reshaping of the Lords in 1999 was supposed to be the first phase of reform. The by-elections were a compromise, where a vacancy caused by the death, resignation or retirement of a hereditary peer, is filled with a member of an official ‘register’ of hereditary aristocrats, sorted by their party – but 22 years later nothing has changed. 

The next phase of reforms is now long overdue. However, despite many attempts to scrap these ridiculous elections, hereditary peers have blocked these motions through filibustering, showing how unelected peers have an active role in shaping our democracy. 

The calls for change are even coming from the Lords itself – even the Lord Speaker agrees it is time for the hereditary peers to go, with the House of Lords spiralling out of control to over 800 members.

We’ve long argued for the end of these sham by-elections and to finally replace the House of Lords with an elected body. How long can these so-called elections continue to make a mockery to our democracy – its time people had a say on who makes our laws, not just a handful of unelected peers.

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