Hereditary peers: Latest aristocrat election sees candidates compete to land Lords ‘seat for life’ 

A new aristocrat will join the House of Lords this month, following the announcement of three candidates for ‘Britain’s most absurd election’.

The latest hereditary peer by-election, which will be the fifth to take place in 2021, will see another aristocrat take a seat in the lords, voting on legislation for the rest of their lives, if they choose to do so.

The election, to fill the vacancy created by the death of Viscount Simon will see peers choose between three candidates for the position. The candidates, all of which are men, will be elected by the whole house.

The recently elected Lord Speaker – Lord McFall – has expressed his opposition to these by-elections and called for a slimming down of the chamber, but peers opted to restart them earlier this year following a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible candidates may submit manifestos of less than 75 words.

The Electoral Reform Society is calling on the government and peers to end this practice and move to a proportionally-elected second chamber.

Commenting on the newly announced hereditary peer by-elections [1], Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: 

“This is truly Britain’s most absurd election. For a parliament in 2021 to still be filled by unelected peers selecting aristocrats to join their ranks is incredible. Despite repeated calls for reform – even from within the Lords this bizarre practice continues.

“Ministers and peers need to get behind legislation to reform this archaic system. While the government charts its elections bill through parliament they have little to say on the lords’ own so-called elections. As a result, a handful of aristocrats are deciding who can vote on our laws and claim expenses for life, on the basis of birth-right.

“Ending these absurd by-elections must be a first step towards ensuring we have real democracy in the UK – with a revising chamber that is fit for purpose, and accountable to the public. It must be the people, not peers who choose who makes our laws. It’s time for a proportionally-elected second chamber, to replace this private member’s club at last.”

Hereditary peers have repeatedly filibustered attempts to end the practice. Several so-called by-elections have had turnouts of just three voters.

The 1999 House of Lords Act removed all but 92 hereditary peers, in what was intended to be a temporary compromise. Subsequently, vacancies that result from death or – since minor changes in 2014 and 2015, retirement, resignation or exclusion – are filled through a so-called by-election.

Most of these aristocrats are chosen by party groups of current hereditary peers with just 15 elected by the whole house, from an official list of aristocrats. There are no female hereditary peers, and just one woman eligible to stand.

The parties’ share of these peers is set at parties’ levels of hereditary representation in the late 1990s, meaning there are 47 Conservative hereditary peers, four Labour, four Liberal Democrat, 31 Crossbench hereditary peers, and two others.

The continuation of hereditary peer by-elections means that around 12% of the second chamber’s lawmakers are there purely down to the circumstance of their birth.