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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.