Is this the most secret election in the world?

Hereditary peers are voted into the House of Lords by a tiny electorate—and face no scrutiny. It’s time we end the practice

June 13, 2023
Battle of the old and stale: “The Bengal Levee” (1792) by James Gillray. Image: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
Battle of the old and stale: “The Bengal Levee” (1792) by James Gillray. Image: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

The results of an election will be announced on Wednesday. A man will be elevated to a position of power that he can—if he wishes—keep for the rest of his life. Seven hundred and seventy-seven voters are currently choosing between three candidates, themselves selected from a small group of eligible families. The general public has no say in the matter. None of the candidates is speaking to the press.

We do, however, know a few things about what the winner will be like. They will be a white, male, Liberal Democrat; they will probably have gone to Eton and they will probably be descended from a prime minister. This isn’t North Korea—it’s just how our House of Lords works. Since Liberal Democrat hereditary peer Viscount Falkland announced his retirement from the Lords in March, three others—Lord Belhaven and Stenton, Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor and Earl Russell—have been competing for his seat. 

A hereditary peer is typically elected solely by the other hereditary members in their party—a system which occasionally leads to there being more candidates than voters. But this particular vote has a wider electorate than the three sitting Liberal Democrat hereditary peers: because Viscount Falkland was chosen by all members of the House of Lords in 1999 to serve as deputy speaker, his replacement is also being elected by the whole House. Peers have two days to cast their vote by post or electronically, and votes will be counted using the alternative vote or “preferential” system.

Wanting to learn what would motivate someone to participate in this archaic process—in particular a Liberal Democrat, belonging to a party committed to Lords reform—I attempted to contact the three candidates. Earl Russell, the 51-year-old great-great grandson of 19th-century Whig prime minister John Russell, responded to my Twitter message—but told me his party had refused to let him be interviewed before the election. Instead I reached out to the Lib Dem press office to formally request to speak to all—or at least one of—these prospective legislators. It was, I stressed, to be a light piece on a quirky element of our parliamentary process. I wanted to know why each man was running and how they were finding it. An officer swiftly came back to me: no interview would be possible with any of the candidates because of “different circumstances”. “This is also down to the procedure being rather complex,” he wrote. He apologised for not being more helpful.

Hereditary peers are not supposed to exist anymore. Tony Blair’s 1997 manifesto pledged to abolish them as a first step towards making the upper chamber more democratic. But in order to convince some disgruntled peers to vote for the reform, Blair struck a secret compromise with the then-Viscount Cranbourne, the Conservative leader in the House of Lords. Although Tory leader William Hague sacked Cranbourne for going behind his back to clinch the deal, the bill passed later that year, with amendments allowing some 92 of the 758 hereditary peers to remain. A second stage of reform to cull the remaining 92 was planned but ran aground under both Labour and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. Since 1999, when one of the 92 has died or retired, cast-out aristocrats bid to return to the House of Lords where their ancestors sat for centuries. 

Candidates typically submit to no scrutiny or debate. Each publishes a manifesto with a strict limit of 75 words. Although the public is not given a vote, we may peruse these 75 words for relevant information about our future lawmakers. 

In his manifesto, Earl Russell, a professional photographer who has unsuccessfully stood to be both a Lib Dem councillor and MP, notes that his photography has been “much used on social media and has been exhibited”. He adds: “I am committed to work in the House with my experience of local government and knowledge of environmental issues and international relations.” Lord Belhaven and Stenton, a 69-year-old Old Etonian, writes that his political priorities are “individual freedom, equality, social justice, environmental and agricultural sustainability,” as well as “active engagement with the EU” and “banning conversion therapy”. The 72-year-old Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, a fellow Old Etonian and the great grandson of 20th-century Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George, insists that he has espoused the traditions and beliefs of a liberal since his early years. “My working life started aged 19 in shipping, finishing in political risk insurance,” he adds. “Should I be elected, I would undertake to be a regular attender and to devote my maximum time and efforts to the Liberal Democrats and to the business of the House.”

No other information is given—and why would it be? There is no point in providing fuller detail for the benefit of the public, who cannot presume to participate in choosing which individual—from one of Britain’s 600 aristocratic families—should retake their ancient seat. No matter that they can be appointed to government positions—three hereditary peers hold ministerial posts in Rishi Sunak’s government. And no matter that we pay for them—in 2021, the Sunday Times found that hereditary peers, who can claim £323 a day for in-person parliamentary work, had cost the taxpayer £50m in allowances and expenses since 2001. (It’s not the best value for money, either—the newspaper also found that the average hereditary member had spoken in the chamber just 50 times in the past five years, compared with 82 times for life peers (appointed members whose titles cannot be inherited), and was 60 per cent more likely than life peers to mention their own business or personal interests.) 

In the House of Lords in the third decade of the 21st century, hereditary peers are all-male and all-white. Most are also old, privately educated and Conservative. If he wins power, Keir Starmer has pledged to replace the House of Lords with a wholly elected upper chamber. We can hope that this future chamber’s members will be chosen by a fair system. It cannot be any less open or less democratic than the farcical vote taking place this week.