Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Britain’s most bizarre byelection

Parliament’s most elitist election shows why government should bring the era of unelected lawmaking to a close altogether, writes Darren Hughes

In 1999, the House of Lords Act removed all but 92 of the ‘backwoodsmen’ – the hundreds of (almost entirely Conservative) hereditary peers. 667 hereditary peers lost their right to sit in the Lords in these reforms. It was meant to be ‘stage one’ of cleaning up our upper chamber.

Yet there was a rather awkward compromise. Vacancies that result from death, retirement, resignation or exclusion (since the very-limited reforms in 2014 and 2015) are filled through a byelection. But given the nature of the House of Lords, it is no ordinary election.

Eligible candidates are drawn from the register of hereditary peers held by the clerk of parliaments, a list that contains any hereditary peer who has expressed an interest in standing in a byelection. Those eligible to vote are those hereditary peers who sit in the vacated peer’s political group. Almost without fail, that group is small and – by definition – entirely aristocratic.

In this crossbench vote, 31 people can decide from ten candidates who will vote on our laws for life.

It is worth analysing this absurdity. At its highest, the electorate for hereditary byelections has been 803. At its lowest, it was just three people.

Four byelections have had more candidates than electors, including the only byelection within the Labour group of hereditary peers for which there were 11 candidates and only three voters.

And new ERS analysis shows that there is only one female hereditary peer listed on the register of future candidates. No female hereditary peer has been admitted to the House of Lords by byelection. And there is only one female hereditary peer currently sitting in the House of Lords (The Countess of Mar). While female representation is improving in the Commons, the Lords is holding progress back.

This time’s all-male line-up is worth perusing for the poetry of the candidate statements alone. They include: ‘I wish to come and give my support for Brexit. I have been in farming’ – the entire application to join our upper house – and ‘I have years of experience in local businesses as I run an estate that covers much of Wales.’ One even failed to give a statement at all.

There is a very serious point here. We have just had a general election to pick who can vote on our laws for five years. Yet 31 hereditary peers are now deciding from a tiny pool of aristocrats who should vote on our laws for the rest of their life.

And in a Lords with no overall majority, that privileged individual could cast the deciding vote on issues that affect all of our futures. We as citizens have no say on who they are.

Almost everyone admits that the farce of hereditary peer ‘byelections’ must end. But as ludicrous as that is however, it is important not to miss the wider point: most peers are picked by just one person: the prime minister. That is a recipe, as we have seen time and again, for cronyism – peerages for pals and party donors.

So scrapping the hereditary peer system must be the first step in the process of cutting the second largest chamber on Earth down to size – and replacing it with a fairly elected revising chamber that can represent us all.

For most people, it is simply astonishing that in the 21st century, a small cadre of aristocrats decides who enters the mother of all parliaments. It is time for the era of hereditary law-making to draw to a close.

More than that though – the government should bring the era of unelected law-making to a close altogether.

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Darren Hughes is acting director of the Electoral Reform Society. He tweets at @darrenhughesnz

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Read the ERS’ new briefing on hereditary peer by-elections here

Sign the petition for an elected upper house here

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