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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.