An ermine-cloaked rotten borough: the bizarre by-election in the House of Lords

Westminster-watchers may be focusing on the Eastleigh by-election at the moment, but there’s been another one a bit closer to home.

While the soul-searching eyes of the nation’s political gurus are glued to the upcoming twists and turns of the upcoming Eastleigh by-election and which candidate said what and when, another parliamentary by-election has slipped lightly under the radar with rather less scrutiny.

In this other parliamentary by-election there were rather more candidates than there are in Eastleigh, an impressive 27. Turnout was very high indeed, at 96 per cent (undoubtedly a higher percentage than Eastleigh), with a majestic 46 out of the 48 eligible voters turning up to place their ballot, under strict parliamentary conditions.

Forty six voters for a parliamentary seat? How can that be? How indeed, given that we are here in the twenty-first century, and parliamentary seats usually have a rather larger electorate. Even 46,000 would be on the low side.

This other by-election was an entirely legitimate election to membership of the second house, the House of Lords, in modern-day Britain, with its own rules and regulations laid down in detail.

Here’s a riveting snippet:

In order to be elected, the successful candidate must receive at least as many votes as all the other candidates put together. In the event of this not happening after first preference votes have been allocated, the votes of the candidate receiving the lowest number of first-preference votes will be shared out according to the second preference marked on them. This will be repeated until one candidate has at least half of the total number of votes (excluding any eliminated because all preferences have been exhausted).

What has happened, without many of us noticing, is the election of a hereditary peer to the House of Lords (in this case a Conservative peer), following the rather byzantine rules created by Labour’s half-hearted attempt to reform the House of Lords some years ago, without managing to finish the job very sensibly. What we are left with is a second House with a mixture of elected and appointed peers. So those who are now elected, were once those who inherited, while those who were never likely to inherit, must wait to be appointed. Clear so far?

So therefore, if one of the 92 hereditary peers dies, a seat becomes available, but is only open to those who could have previously inherited a seat (or their successors), and are of the same party as the member who has just died. So in this case, the member of the House of Lords who died was Earl Ferrers, so those eligible to vote had to be members of the House of the Lords who are Conservative hereditary peers. While those able to stand for office were a small, but exclusive, set who were previously Conservative hereditary peers (or their children) and fancy a bit of a go at getting back in.

In case you were on the edge of your armchair, dying to know this by-election result: the newly elected member of the House of Lords is Viscount Ridley (He got 24 of the 46 votes).

And for those who were thinking this feels a bit reminiscent of something you remember vaguely from your school history lessons... You might be thinking of rotten boroughs, where tiny number of voters had the power to elect members of parliament, but these were abolished in 1832 by the Reform Act. An election-themed episode of BBC TV’s Blackadder called “Dish and Dishonesty”, where there was just one voter plus a dachshund called Colin, dramatically conveyed the idiocies and madnesses of historical elections, so we could see just how far we have come.

Nothing funny there then.

Twenty-seven hereditary Conservative peers faced off to get a seat in the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.