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Hereditary peers embarrass democracy

by Willie Sullivan

FOR a while, it looked as if we’d see the end of the hereditary principle in our politics.

Most of them went in “stage one” of Tony Blair’s reforms in the late ’90s, but here we find ourselves, several governments later, with 92 of them still hanging on to their inherited places at the heart of our democracy.

Westminster is a place where the elite seek to protect their position as chief decision-makers — none more so than these 91 men and sole woman.

These aristocrats play by their own rules and their games exclude all but their own.

This is something clearly evidenced by the system by which one of their number is replaced.

Custom dictates that a “by-election” is held. These aren’t infrequent — there have been 32 in total, since this bizarre farce began.

Often voting and democracy are considered to go hand-in-hand, but there is nothing democratic about these elections.

The average electorate — the number of people entitled to vote for a replacement Lord — for most of these by-elections is just 32. It’s 188 when you include the rare occasions the whole house votes on the replacement.

The average turnout for “normal” by-elections of this kind is just 29 voters. The voters are those who sit within the hereditary “group” for which there is a vacancy.

That means 29 aristocrats pick another of their number to join the Lords for life and vote on all our laws.

A total of 3,190 votes have been cast in the history of hereditary peer by-elections for 32 Lords, compared to the last 32 Commons by-elections where 931,725 votes have been cast.

And four Lords by-elections have had more candidates than electors.

Let that sink in for a minute.

There are currently two of these so-called by-elections going on, one following the retirement of Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. Just 31 peers will have the chance to vote for the grandson of Stanley Baldwin’s replacement.

The candidates are drawn exclusively from the Register of Hereditary Peers held by the Clerk of Parliaments and their manifestos make for interesting reading.

Among the 19 names are the Queen’s nephew and her personal solicitor.

Earl Albemarle submission (in full) states: “It would be interesting to analyse the make up of the Cross Bench Peers. To see the balance between the ‘right-brained’ individuals who are meant to be more subjective, creative who rely on intuition and the percentage of ‘left-brained,’ who are objective, analytical and rely on reasoning. I personally can only offer the Cross Benches my right-side of the brain, with 30 years of experience in the commercial creative arts.”

Meanwhile Lord Glenconner states: “I take a great interest in politics and legislation. I will shortly be embarking on a career in the financial services. Being of an independent mind and spirit I believe I can contribute to the important work of the House.”

The candidates and their electors could not be further from the public.  

These absurd by-elections can be ended now as the first step towards wholescale reform of the House of Lords. Lord Grocott’s Bill to end the farce is currently making headway and could win government support.

Either way, there is growing recognition that we can’t carry on as we are. It would be a powerful statement for the next Labour government to act on our principles and, on day one, make moves towards fairly elected chamber representative of the entire UK and fit for the 21st century.
Willie Sullivan is senior director of campaigns for the Electoral Reform Society ERS.



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