Lesley Riddoch: Just two lords thwart bid to oust hereditary peers from Parliament

Three days before Brexit, an important by-election takes place in the Houses of Parliament, in which just 31 people will be eligible to select three new members from a shortlist of 14 male candidates.
Peers take their seats in the House of Lords.  Pic: WPA Pool/Getty Images.Peers take their seats in the House of Lords.  Pic: WPA Pool/Getty Images.
Peers take their seats in the House of Lords. Pic: WPA Pool/Getty Images.

If that seems a tad undemocratic even by archaic Westminster standards, I should add that it’s an election for new members of the House of Lords. So that’s alright then.

Yes, who cares if the largest unelected chamber in the world outside the People’s Congress of China flouts every civilised idea about representative democracy and lets aristocrats and feudal landowners pick their chums to help run Britain? The answer is a hard truth for believers in Scotland’s continuing submission to the “Mother of Parliament” – no-one with the slightest clout to change things in Britain gives a toss.

The story goes like this.

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Hereditary peers were mostly abolished under reforms by Tony Blair’s government in 1999, but 92 remained as a bizarre compromise with the intention of phasing them out once a truly democratic replacement for the ermine-drapped entitlement of current members had been found. It hasn’t. So since 1999, whenever one of those 92 dies or retires they are replaced – not in a vote involving the whole House of Lords, but generally, by peers from their own party. Only other unelected aristocrats can stand, so effectively a lot of Tory Dukes, Lords and Barons are left to “elect” their as yet un-nobled pals.

But Labour’s at it too. A recent by-election for new Labour hereditary peers had 11 candidates and just three voters. A triumph for the few not the many.

Still to less democracy-numbed Labour peers this seemed kinda wrong. So Labour’s Lord Grocott put forward a private member’s bill to abolish the by-elections and thus phase out hereditary peers in the Lords last Friday. But even though his plan had support from the Tories, two hereditary peers managed to stymy reform by laying more than 50 amendments, meaning debate exceeded the allotted time and the proposal was shelved.

So what you might ask. So many rules have been bent, flouted and downright ignored in recent weeks in the Commons, what difference does a little bad behaviour in the Lords make? After all, the PM’s Brexit deal is set to be reintroduced for a third and perhaps fourth time even though resubmission one single time is against Commons conventions.

But the Lords debacle - though relatively unpublicised - is far more important than it seems.

For one thing, it demonstrates the absolute impotence of well-meaning reformers at Westminster and the knuckle-dragging backwardness we pay for in the Lords.

One of the amendments to Lord Grocott’s Bill said there must be four female hereditary peers (up from the current one) before it could be enacted. Another required a vote of all hereditary peers worldwide (900). Another from Labour peer Lord Adonis called for replacements to be elected by the whole country through a nationwide ballot. Why would members of any parliament waste time discussing nonsense proposals like these? And how could Labour be outmanoeuvred twice (the same bill was talked out last year too) unless the writ of law, democratic thought, fairness, modernity and popular opinion does not extend to the “Upper” House?

Secondly, even if Grocott’s Bill had succeeded, it would simply mean the crustiest feudal landowners were taken out – leaving unelected party placemen and women to dominate completely. And whilst the Lords has recently been on the side of the angels over Brexit - defeating the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill fifteen times - membership still acts as a bulwark for the power of patronage and is still used as a naked bribe for the vain and deluded - witness Theresa May’s “elevation” of John (what has he ever done for democracy) Redwood.

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Some 22 new peers were appointed to the House of Lords in 2018 – despite Theresa May’s promise to slash the size of the second chamber. These included nine Tories, six crossbenchers, three Labour and one DUP politician plus three bishops and no supporters of Scottish independence since the SNP rightly refuses to join the world’s foostiest and most elitist club.

The SNP’s Tommy Sheppard says these “chummy political appointments” are inexcusable – and they are. The taxpayer foots an annual bill of £83,000 to keep peers like the obstructive Malcolm Sinclair aka the Earl of Caithness in the style to which he has become accustomed. One might suggest members of Clan Sinclair let Malcolm know he’s out of step with the public mood (only 10 per cent backed an unchanged Lords in 2017) but since the clan’s website fondly recalls its chief joining Margaret Thatcher’s “reforming government” in 1984, maybe not.

So how will change ever happen?

In 2017 a Lords committee recommended limiting any peer’s term to 15 years and adopting a “two-out, one in” system to cut numbers fast. What’s happened? Nothing – except Friday’s predictable and ignominious defeat.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society says: “It’s high time we gave the public a say over who sits in our second chamber. One thing unites this country right now – frustration with a centralised, out-of-touch Westminster. Nothing represents that as much as the feudal relic that is hereditary peerages.”

That’s only half right. No matter how much switched on peers and campaigners talk about change so that a new second chamber is directly elected by ordinary voters, or indirectly elected from the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and any English authorities created by federalism (ahem) - there’s one big snag.

A democratically elected second chamber with greater legitimacy than the much-maligned, safe-seat-stuffed House of Commons will never be approved by MPs – ask Nick Clegg whose proposals were ditched in 2012 for just this reason.

So God love the English radicals still trying to find a way to modernise Westminster and talk up the chances of a federal UK. Sadly, what this debacle really shows is that the Lords - and therefore Britain’s supposed check on the power of the Executive and the Commons - is actually unsalvageable. No-one in power cares enough to fix it. What’s needed is a cataclysmic shock to the system. And if that isn’t Brexit, it will be Scottish independence.