These three peers should not be allowed to stand in the way of democracy
By Darren Hughes – Electoral Reform Society: In a week dominated by Brexit, it’s easy to forget that there are other topics still on the political agenda. While our MPs once again grapple over just what kind of Brexit would ‘take back control’, there’s unelected power closer to home that deserves our attention.
On 15th March – a bill by Labour peer Lord Grocott returns to the house with the aim of ending the bizarre practice of hereditary peer ‘by-elections’. These elections, which take place when a hereditary peer dies, retires or is kicked out of the chamber allow aristocrats to maintain guaranteed representation in the Lords.
The Grocott bill would end the practice of these by-elections, reducing the number of hereditary peers reduces over time. It would be a small step forward towards ending the role of unelected aristocrats in Parliament.
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Just this week the ballot dropped for the latest of these so-called elections to fill the vacancy left by the death of Viscount Slim. These elections make a mockery of our democratic processes. This one will see 14 candidates compete for the votes of just 31 eligible voters – each themselves unelected aristocrats holding lifetime appointments as hereditary peers.
The candidates boast experience in banking, the defence industry and ‘land management’ as qualifiers for the role whilst two of the 14 couldn’t even be bothered to submit manifestos to support their candidacy.
If Lord Grocott’s bill passes, this election could finally be the last.
Sadly, the bill faces strong opposition in the Lords from a small number of peers. Last time the bill was debated by the chamber it was talked out by just three Lords – determined to prevent any positive reform taking place.
Shamefully, this time around they’re back again. Lord Northbrook, Lord Trefgarne and the Earl of Caithness have between them tabled 59 ‘wrecking’ amendments to the Grocott bill designed to stop it from becoming law.
Each are themselves, hereditary peers, with a seat in the house for life. Each of them are totally unaccountable to the millions of people whose laws they make.
But these three cannot again be allowed to stand in the way of reform – even if it is just a small step forward towards democratic second chamber.
The call for much-needed change in the private members’ club that is the House of Lords is increasing day by day – with the case for reform being made from inside the house as well as from outside it.
Last weekend at our event at Scottish Labour conference, Jeremy Corbyn’s constitutional adviser Baroness Bryan launched her first proposals to update the party’s democratic policies. She’s calling for the abolition House of Lords, with a replacement most likely through a fairly-elected chamber of the nations and regions.
At the same time Green peer Baroness Jones has re-introduced her own Bill to the Lords, calling similarly for the end to hereditary representation and a smaller, elected upper chamber with representatives from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
It’s clear the campaign for change is only getting stronger. Reform is truly back on the agenda and these unelected hereditaries cannot be allowed to stand in the way of democracy.
It’s time to turn Parliament’s private members’ club into the modern, representative upper house we need.
The Electoral Reform Society is an independent campaigning organisation working to champion the rights of voters and build a better democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.