House of Lords to choose new hereditary member today

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House of Lords Chamber
The House of Lords, Westminster (Image: the House of Lords)

One of the more peculiar elections to take place anywhere in the world will be held in the British House of Lords today. Following the retirement of Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, the “crossbench” hereditary peers of the chamber will elect his replacement. There are nineteen contenders (including the Queen’s nephew, the Earl of Snowden) and a total of 31 eligible voters.

Yes, the House of Lords still has hereditary lords

However archaic the House of Lords system for electing hereditary aristocrats might seem to outsiders, it is actually a recent innovation.

The current system dates from the 1999 House of Lords Act, which removed over 600 hereditary peers from Parliament’s upper house (just to avoid misunderstanding, before this reform roughly half of the 1,330 seats in the House of Lords were held by members who literally inherited their position). This expulsion of the hereditaries left behind another 600 or so “life peers,” who are appointed to the Lords for life but cannot pass their title on to their children (and tend to be former government ministers or public figures from the worlds of business, science, or the military).

But not all hereditary peers were removed in the end. The then Labour government led by Tony Blair initially tried to remove the lot with its 1999 reform, but eventually was persuaded to let 92 in total remain. These 92 members were chosen by vote in a special election held within the British nobility. Since then, whenever one retires a replacement is elected.

Enter the Crossbenchers

There is another complication to this story: crossbenchers.

Roughly a third of all peers, such as the recently retired Earl Baldwin, sit as “crossbench” peers who have no partisan affiliation (and literally sit on seats that are perpendicular to the “benches” that government and opposition peers sit on).

Earl Baldwin’s replacement will need to be a crossbencher as well, and will be voted on only by other crossbenchers. This reduces the total electorate for today’s election from 92 total hereditary peers to 31 crossbench hereditary peers.

The candidates speak

Interested candidates were requested to submit a written statement of up to 75 words, which have been made public. Several read like a polished electoral appeals. His Grace, the Duke of Hamilton, writes, “I bring my day to day experience of community work, engineering, farming and business. If elected, would be committed to making a positive and effective contribution to the work of the House.”

Some are decidedly quirkier. His Lordship, the Earl of Albemarle, writes:

“It would be interesting to analyse the make up of the Cross Bench Peers. To see the balance between the “right-brained” individuals who are meant to be more subjective, creative who rely on intuition and the percentage of “left-brained,” who are objective, analytical, and rely on reasoning. I personally can only offer the Cross Benches my right-side of the brain, with 30 years of experience in the commercial creative arts.”

Promising to leave objectivity and reasoning out of legislative duties is certainly an unusual electoral strategy, but is at least refreshingly honest.

His Lordship, the Earle of Snowden (and nephew of HRH The Queen) was the sole candidate not to submit a written statement.

The election finishes at 5pm today. The winner will be announced tomorrow at an unspecified time.

UPDATE: On July 4th His Lordship the Earl of Devon was elected by his peers (literally) to membership in the House of Lords as a hereditary crossbencher.

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