This week the ballots dropped for the world’s most elitist election. A contest to select a new hereditary Crossbench peer to sit in the House of Lords.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that elections for even some of the 781 strong House would be a positive thing – a small speck of democracy in an otherwise unaccountable legislature.
But instead, this contest will see the 14 candidates compete for the votes of just 31 eligible voters, each themselves a hereditary Crossbencher, for a chance to win the lifetime appointment to a seat in the Lords.
The election was triggered by the death of Viscount Slim earlier this year. Under current rules, when a vacancy arises, existing hereditaries without a place in the Lords can stand in a so-called by-election in the hope of winning the vacant seat.
The candidates include wealthy landowners, businessmen, retired military officers, and a Circuit Judge. Much like their backgrounds, their reasons for standing vary. The Earl Effingham, former Chair of the Royal British Legion cites his belief that the armed forces charity deserves recognition in the upper chamber, while Viscount Powerscourt, a Cardiff based therapist claims the flexibility of his work allowing him to attend the House two days a week makes him suitable for the role. In his election statement, former banker Lord Aldington lists ‘the regions’ and improving his own landscape garden as key concerns. And two artistocrats couldn’t even be bothered to write manifesto statements.
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Despite their differences, the candidates have much in common. All are male, all have inherited their title and all, potentially, could take a seat in the Lords and make our laws for the rest of their lives.
But if a current peer’s efforts are successful, this ‘election’ – the 37th of its kind to have taken place since the number of hereditary peers in the Lords was reduced to 92 back in 1999 – could be the last.
On Friday, Lord Grocott’s bill returns to the Lords: a bill which seeks to end this bizarre process by scrapping the system of hereditary peer by-elections.
The bill proposes that when a hereditary peer dies, retires or is excluded from the chamber that they are not replaced – meaning the role of hereditaries would be gradually phased out. Not exactly a radical move, but one very modest step forward.
But opposition to the measures from a select few strong. When the bill was last debated in March 2018 year a small number of peers (themselves hereditaries, taking their seats by birth and privilege) used complex parliamentary procedure to delay the Bill to wreck its chances of making it out of committee stage.
Hopefully this time the bill can receive a fair hearing and we can make some process towards ending the role of hereditary lawmakers in our democracy. It’s time to bring Britain’s bloated, unelected second chamber a bit closer towards becoming the modern, representative chamber we need today.
From the Conservatives’ own benches to growing calls for reform in the Labour party, the campaign for change is only getting stronger.
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