This week seven people stood for election for a post that gave the winner the right to vote on laws, question Ministers, and impact on the day to day lives of 64 million people. Three people took part in the vote to decide the winner.
Some dictatorship somewhere? A Ruritanian throwback? A page from a novel?
No, this was the House of Lords in the 21st century and the winner was a hereditary peer. Granted entrance to the contest because of the birth of the appointment of a long dead relative.
Walter Bagehot once said “the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.” That has never been truer than now. After a radical shake up of the other chamber, by the last Labour Government, we have seen a stagnation of reform. This reform has been interspersed by minor tinkering around retirement and expulsion. Necessary though these changes were they do not tackle on the biggest absurdities of the current chamber namely hereditary peers.
This week’s by-election was for a new hereditary peer following the sad passing of Liberal Democrat Lord Avebury. On 11th April 2016 the nomination papers were submitted and showed that seven candidates are running for the vacancy. But then comes the farcical point. Three, yes count them, three people will decide who gets to become the new hereditary peer. These three peers will confer upon the successful candidate the power to impose legislation on households up and down the country.
I’m pleased to tell people that unlike recent elections around the UK, where turnout has been steadily declining, this election had a 100% turnout. It must have been a tense period of waiting for the hopeful candidates as the 3 votes were counted, especially as it took 24 hours. Houghton and Sunderland South could definitely teach the House of Lords a thing or two.
The winner was none other than Viscount Thurso. However, some of you may remember him as John Thurso – former Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Viscount Thurso, who left the House of Lords in 1999, following the Labour reforms to retain only a rump of hereditary peers, stood as a MP in 2001 and remained so until the electorate decided they no longer wanted him representing them in Parliament in 2015. That has not stopped Viscount Thurso seeking a blue-blood transfusion to get back into Parliament.
Labour has constantly been at the forefront of democratising our institutions. We were the party that updated the 1911 Parliament Act – ensuring that the vetoing powers of the Lords was further restricted. In 1968 and 1969 the Wilson Government produced a White Paper, which called for the power of the Lords to be reduced and for the hereditary basis to be eliminated. The 1978 Callaghan Government picked up the mantle of Lords Reform, establishing a committee chaired by Lord Home of the Hirsel. This committee recommended a chamber in which two-thirds of members would ultimately be elected and one-third appointed. These plans were halted by 18 years Tory Government. However, a reinvigorated and newly elected Labour Government in 1999 successfully abolished more than 600 hereditary peers in the House of Lords Act.
A rump of 92 hereditary peers remained, a compromise to ensure the legislation passed. But when the Bill was given Royal Assent it was stressed that this was but “the first stage in a process of reform.”
Now is the time to push on with that reform.
How can it be right for our laws to be created by a group of people whose only reason for being legislators is based upon the ability of their ancestors to schmooze the King? For example Lord Fairfax of Cameron – the Conservative peer – is able to sit within our second chamber because his ancestor, Thomas Fairfax, was the first Englishman to travel to Scotland and swear allegiance to the new King James I. Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think someone should be able pass laws based upon the skill of his ancestor in catching the coach up to Edinburgh.
It ensures that an idea of unfairness is able to form the foundation of the UKs second legislating chamber. We should be able to say to our children “if you work hard you can be whatever you want to be.” There shouldn’t then follow a string of clauses in regards to becoming a legislator.
The House of Lords is in dire need of a constitutional reform. Leaving the Chinese National Congress aside, the House of Lords is the second largest chamber in the world. Removing the remaining 92 hereditary peers would be an important step in minimising the Lords size but it would also be a fair and equitable step as well.
The Tory Government has always shirked its responsibility when it comes to important constitutional reform – unless it is in their favour, It once again falls onto the Labour Party to push for a reinvigoration of our uncodified constitution. If we follow the Tory whines of “no reform!” we will be allowing our Parliament to be tarnished by undemocratic principles.
Yesterday I introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill calling for the abolition of hereditary peers. Admittedly this is only a small reform. We need to do more but the task that is House of Lords reform can only come to fruition if we continue to take small steps in updating its principles. Let’s start now.