Think the EU campaign is bizarre? Check out this House of Lords by-election

Seventeen Lords are running for a hereditary peerage. Yes, really.


The House of Lords is having an election. No, you didn’t miss the news of radical Lords reform. This isn’t an ordinary kind of election.

Only 31 people can vote. What’s going on?

It’s that modern classic absurdity of Britain’s constitution – we’re having another hereditary Peer by-election. We’ve had a few this year, and this one’s a corker.

Let’s give a bit of background. Under Tony Blair’s partial Lords reform at the end of the 1990s, most of the hundreds of hereditary Peers – those who had ‘inherited’ their place in the legislature through ancestry – were cleared out. Gone were the ‘backwoodsmen’, and instead we’d have a House with no hereditaries whatsoever.

Yet Blair couldn’t get his House of Lords Bill through the House of Lords itself – the lesson of Turkeys rarely voting for Christmas.

So a compromise amendment (the Weatherill amendment) was made in the Lords to allow 92 hereditary Peers to remain. They’d be ‘elected’ by the currently serving hereditary Peers from each party, or those on the cross-bench for Peers with no party.

It was meant to be Stage One of Blair’s House of Lords reform plans – with Stage Two being wider reform through an elected upper chamber as the end goal. Stage One was the ‘transitional’ phase, in Blair’s own words.

That fell through time and again however, with a new attempt at Lords reform occurring almost every year after the 1998/1999 House of Lords Act. Instead, we were left with:

  • 2 Labour hereditary peers
  • 42 Conservative hereditary peers
  • 3 Liberal Democrat hereditary peers
  • 28 Crossbench hereditary peers
  • 15 hereditary peers to be elected by the whole House
  • The holders of the offices of Earl Marshal (the Duke of Norfolk) and Lord Great Chamberlain (currently the Marquess of Cholmondeley) as ex officio members

Messy business. Since then, every time a hereditary Peer passes away, the hereditary Peers (or their ancestors) who were booted out by Blair can run to replace them.

They submit candidate statements and are voted on by serving hereditaries from the original Peer’s party.

Bizarrely, in the case of the Lib Dems, that means the electorate is three people.

We actually saw this in April, when seven Lib Dem hereditary Peers contested a ‘by-election’. It included the Earl of Limerick, who submitted a limerick as his candidate statement.

The election had a turnout of 100 per cent, with all three serving Lib Dem hereditaries voting, and with Viscount Thurso elected to spend the rest of his life voting on our laws.

And then May, the Tories had their own hereditary peer by-election, with an electorate of 48. 41 cast their ballots, and in the end, the Duke of Wellington won the by-election, winning 21 votes after the elimination of eleven candidates (it’s an AV ballot, funnily enough).

Which brings us to this cross-bench election, since we’re running at one a month.

I won’t list all 17 candidates, but there are some corkers:

Lord Cadman. No statement submitted. (seriously, this is to get to vote on our laws for life? Why no statement?)

Lord Hemphill: ‘I am very aware of the challenges now facing the younger generation.’ Given that he spent 36 years in the financial sector (and is presumably now retired), I’m struggling to buy this.

Lord Oriel, Viscount of Massereene and Ferrard: ‘I wish this country to leave the EEC. If we do so I will fully participate in the work needed to fully get out. If we remain I will accept the decision with good grace but will continue to work for eventual exit once the euro collapses.’ The EEC hasn’t existed for decades, I’m afraid. You’ll struggle to leave or join it these days.

Lord Napier and Ettrick: ‘I believe the House remains essential to the functioning of our democracy, for which I wish to serve.’ Essential for our democracy!

Duke of Rutland: ‘When my father died in 1999 I attended the House 11 times, during April to November, before being kicked out by Mr Blair…I have been a member of UKIP for seven years so my political views are really summed up that way.’ It’s a cross-bench position.

Lord Somerleyton: ‘I think the hereditary peerage worth preserving and its principle creates a sense of innate commitment to the welfare of the nation.’ No comment.

Lord Southampton: No statement submitted. Again, really?

And the best of them all:

Lord Mereworth, Lord of Oranmore and Browne: ‘I wish to inherit a seat as promised in letters patent (by the monarch). All my ancestors on both sides have served.’ Today’s entitlement culture, eh?

There’s a hustings and everything, on the June 28. I wonder how many will turn up.

Ballots must be in by the July 11, so get voting!

…Ah wait, that’s right. We can’t.

Josiah Mortimer is a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on Twitter @josiahmortimer

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.