'˜The democratic disaster of 90 seats reserved for men in Parliament'

A so-called by-election is showing the House of Lords up as a disaster for democracy '“ and diversity, writes Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society.

The state opening of parliament is full of pomp and ceremony but hereditary peers are a historic part of the UK Parliament that should be consigned to history (Picture: Suzanne Plunkett /WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Here’s a strange fact, a week ahead of the centenary of women’s right to stand for Parliament: 90 seats in the Palace of Westminster are effectively reserved for men.

Voting has just begun for the current hereditary peer ‘by-election’, to replace retired crossbencher Lord Northbourne. Yes, in the 21st century, not only do we still have hereditary peers, but they are replaced with a bizarre ‘election’ every time one dies or retires.

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The 1999 House of Lords Act removed all but 90 of the hereditary peers plus holders of the offices of Earl Marshall and Lord Great Chamberlain – 92 in total. But instead of letting this number reduce over time, any vacancies – whether through death, retirement or expulsion – are filled again.

According to ERS analysis in June, these hereditary by-elections have an average of just 29 voters (excluding rare elections that require all peers to vote). This compares to an average of 29,116 votes cast over the last 32 Commons by-elections – a larger democratic mandate by a factor of 1,000. Some 3,190 votes have been cast in total for the 32 peers elected in hereditary peer by-elections since 2003. By contrast, 931,725 votes have been cast in the last 32 House of Commons by-elections.

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At its highest, the Lords electorate has been 803 people, at its lowest just three. And at least four by-elections have had more candidates than electors, including the only by-election within the Labour group of hereditary peers – for which there were 11 candidates and only three voters – which took place on 30 October 2003.

As a Crossbench Peer, Lord Northbourne’s replacement will be selected by the current hereditary peers of the Crossbench group – 31 in total – with the election ending on 27 November. There are 11 candidates and just 31 voters. All but one (Countess Mar) are men.

Eligible candidates are drawn from an obscure ‘Register of Hereditary Peers’ held by the Clerk of Parliaments. This list contains any hereditary peer who has expressed an interest in standing in a by-election.

Yet next Wednesday marks the centenary of some women winning the right to stand for election to the Commons. Out of 211 on the hereditary peerage register, there is only one woman – effectively reserving the 90 electable hereditary seats in the House of Lords for men.

It is hard to see how these elections do anything but make a laughing stock of Parliament. Aristocrats and life peers are deciding who can vote on our laws for life.

Earlier this year, government peer Lord Young said the Prime Minister will not seek to obstruct a bill passing through Parliament which aims to end hereditary peer by-elections at last. But we must go much further.

It must be the first step towards a fairly elected Lords. Let’s end this silly side-show once and for all.

The House of Lords is bringing our democracy into disrepute. We need a fairly elected and representative second chamber – not an unaccountable, scandal-ridden one.

Sign the Electoral Reform Society’s petition to scrap the Lords and replace it with a fairly elected second chamber.

Darren Hughes is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society