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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.