The ludicrousness of hereditary peer by-elections

Chris Terry
Author:
Chris Terry

Posted on the 15th September 2016

The British constitution, its parliament and its institutions are well known for its oddities and eccentricities: the space provided in the Commons cloakroom for MPs to hang their sword; the fact that all swans in the River Thames are the property of the Queen; or the fact that MPs aren’t allowed to name each other in the Commons.

Defenders will argue that such things are harmless eccentricities, which build a sense of pageantry into British public life and connect our institutions to history. Perhaps they are right.

Yet one of the newer and perhaps more harmful eccentricities of the system is the hereditary peer by-election. This oddity comes out of the compromise forced on to Tony Blair and the Labour Party as part of the 1999 House of Lords Reform Bill, which was originally planned to abolish the right of all hereditary peers (those who inherit their titles) to sit in the House, leaving the life peers, who are appointed for life and whose descendants do not inherit their titles.

Threats by noble Lords to hold up the passage of ALL legislation in the House because of their opposition to the Bill led to Blair and the Conservative leader in the House, Viscount Cranborne, negotiating a secret deal (without then Conservative leader William Hague’s knowledge, leading to Cranborne’s sacking).

The hereditaries were elected from amongst themselves in the autumn of 1999. From then on, whenever one of them died, or more recently, resigned, there would be a by-election. To qualify to stand you have to be a hereditary peer not currently in the Lords. The electorate is the hereditary peers of that party remaining in the House. So, for instance, there shall be a hereditary peer by-election on 19th October this year. This was caused by the retirement of a sitting peer in the crossbench (non-party) group, and thus the electorate shall be the 30 crossbench hereditary peers currently in the House of Lords. Also, 15 hereditary peers are elected by the whole house to serve as deputy speakers or in other offices for the House.

The elections occur by the Alternative Vote system and the candidates put up candidate statements on the House of Lords by-election webpage. These can occasionally prove to be unintentionally funny, though the truly oddball ones never seem to get elected.

And so this is the closest that the House of Lords gets to being elected. 92 peers elected from within themselves. Parliamentary elites choosing from amongst themselves.

Three days ago a hereditary peer by-election in the Conservative Party had its result announced. The electorate, of 48, saw 41 cast their ballots. In the end, the Duke of Wellington won the by-election, winning 21 votes after the elimination of eleven candidates. Congratulations, Duke, truly you have one of the biggest democratic mandates of any peer.

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