The House of Lords exists as a second parliamentary body to scrutinize bills which pass through the House of Commons. A second parliament chamber for this purpose is far from unique – such a body exists in every fully-fledged democracy with a population similar to or larger than the UK except South Korea.
Historically, the only way to join the House of Lords was either by inheriting a hereditary peerage (any title equivalent to the role of a Lord), having a peerage created (granted by the government), or being a senior Bishop in the Church of England. Consequently, the House of Lords was largely composed of the descendants of nobility, although after 1958 it became increasingly more populated by ‘life peers’ who had a one-time peerage granted to themselves. In 1999 however, it became law that hereditary peers shouldn’t automatically be entitled to sit in the House of Lords. This meant that only life peers and 26 Church of England Bishops, known as the Lords Spiritual, were entitled to remain members. However the input of many hereditary Lords was considered valuable, and it was decided that 92 hereditary peers would stay for the rest of their lives.
There also needed to be a way of selecting which 92 would stay – and so, for the first time, an election occurred to select members of the House of Lords. It differed from an ordinary election in several ways:
- Rather trivially, only hereditary peers could stand for election.
- Only hereditary peers could vote in the election.
- To maintain political balance in the Lords, all but 15 of the positions were designated to one of four groups – Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or ‘crossbenchers’, a non-affiliated group within the Lords.
- Only hereditary peers that belonged to a certain political group could vote for positions reserved for that group.
This meant that it continued to lack a democratic element to the way in which its members are selected. Also, as the act (House of Lords Act 1999) which brought this change mandates that positions reserved for certain political groups are always reserved as such, it arguably means that the existence of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are enshrined in law, no matter how the political landscape of the country changes since they have designated seats in the Lords.
Now fast forward to last month. Lord Walpole (a descendant of Robert Walpole, the country’s first Prime Minister) resigned from his crossbench position. He remained in the Lords due to winning a position reserved for crossbenchers, so only crossbenchers were allowed to stand in the by-election to replace him. In the end, ten peers registered to stand, and they were given 75 words to make a statement. Some statements were very simple; Lord Cadman didn’t submit a statement at all, while Viscount Hill’s was as follows:
“I wish to come and give my support for Brexit. I have been in farming.”
The election itself occurred last Wednesday. Lord Cadman got no votes, while Viscount Hill had withdrawn.
Other statements tended to be more reasonable. Lord Aldington mentioned his global experience in banking, and his concerns which included young people, Brexit and university funding; while Lord Mostyn mentioned his experience and involvement with local businesses and charities. In the end, they came joint second with 4 votes each. Lord Vaux of Harrowden’s statement was as follows:
“A lifelong independent.
Runner-up in the last Crossbench by-election.
A chartered accountant, I have 30 years’ international business experience, having lived and
worked in the UK, Europe and Asia.
For 15 years held senior positions in the technology sector, covering public sector,
education and financial services, latterly as global head of corporate development for a $5bn US group.
Interests in renewable energy, farming and Scotland.
I am able to and would intend to contribute fully.”
With 16 votes out of the 27 cast (out of 31 eligible electors), Lord Vaux was the clear winner of the election. Usually, Lords by-elections involve multiple rounds, with the last candidate being eliminated each time, until a candidate obtains a majority – a system often considered to be too complex to be used in ordinary elections.
So, there we have it. Lord Vaux of Harrowden, who was ultimately eligible to stand because a direct ancestor became a baron due to his close relationship with Henry VII, became a member of the House of Lords. And while he was elected to the chamber, the small number of people who could vote were eligible to do so for the same reasons in which he was able to stand. Due to the purpose of the Lords, some argue that the way it currently works is a good thing – with the reasoning that a democratic election to the Lords would lead to a similar political composition to the House of Commons, which would lead it to seldom disagree with decisions made in the Commons. However, most upper chambers around the world have a democratic method of selection:
The French Sénat is elected by delegates chosen by locally elected officials. The Dutch Tweede Kamer is elected a little more directly – seats are mathematically delegated according to results in provincial elections. In Germany, the Bundesrat is composed by representatives of governments formed in state parliaments (Landtags). In the US Senate, each state has 2 directly elected Senators regardless of population. In Australia, a nationwide election is held, and seats are distributed according to the popular vote for each party.
All 5 of these examples have a clear democratic element – The composition is entirely decided by how people vote, albeit in some cases the ‘value’ of a vote depends on where it’s cast. Also, in each case, the method of election differs from elections to the lower chamber in the country’s legislature.
So, perhaps its time for serious reform of the House of Lords?
Candidate statements and the election result can be found via the following links: