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Peers to decide on scrapping hereditary by-elections

7 min read

Twenty years after Tony Blair’s government reformed the House of Lords, the ‘temporary’ solution that left 90 hereditary peers in place still remains. But this week the Lords will debate proposals to scrap by-elections for hereditary peers for good. Robert Orchard reports, and speaks to one of the newest hereditary members, Lord Carrington

You know you are dealing with the English aristocracy when one of its most distinguished families spells its name, confusingly, in two different ways. So on the death of his father, the distinguished former Conservative Foreign Secretary, last summer, Mr Rupert Carington (one ‘r’) became the new Lord Carrington (two ‘r’s’) – do try to keep up.

That ennoblement did not entitle him to an automatic seat in the House of Lords, of course. Tony Blair saw to that 20 years ago when the newly-elected Labour government memorably said ‘Thank you and goodbye’ to more than 600 hereditary peers in the House of Lords Act. Now, though, the latest Lord Carrington has replaced his eminent father on the Lords red benches, as winner of a knife-edge victory in one of the controversial by-elections held every time one of the surviving 90 hereditary peers who still sit in The Other Place dies or retires.

Why, aged nearly 70, did the new Lord Carrington put himself forward for an esoteric by-election involving one of the smallest and most exclusive electorates in any democracy on the planet, consisting of just 31 crossbench, or independent, peers? “I decided to stand largely because I saw no point in being a peer without actually attempting to earn one’s keep and take advantage of the tremendous opportunity it enabled one to grasp,” he says.

Carrington topped the poll with 14 votes. His nearest rival got nine. Is he at all embarrassed at winning a seat for life to become a lawmaker in the UK parliament, eligible for daily allowances of more than £300, on the votes of so few people? “Well, he counters, “it is more voters than there would be for a by-election for a new hereditary Labour peer!” That is certainly true: there are only four Labour hereditaries in the Upper House out of the 90, and four Lib Dems, so when one of them dies or retires, only the remaining three in that party can vote on the successor.

This new boy at Westminster is relieved to have got over the first hurdle of making his maiden speech in the Lords a few days ago, but admits he is a late arrival in politics: “I took a pretty early decision that I would not try to get into House of Commons or politics at all, because I am well aware how unsuccessful sons of famous politicians have been over the years. I thought I would steer well clear!” Instead, he became a merchant banker then went into investment analysis and the financial advisory business. He now sits as a director on several company boards, and also has farming interests and runs the family estate.

Why not seek a seat as a Tory? “For one thing, I do have some policy disagreements. I am a leftwing Conservative, as my father was. One thing I do feel very strongly about is grammar schools. I don’t approve of them because it is not a level playing field and I see a lot of the tuition many of the children who eventually go to grammar schools get from rich parents and I don’t like it… I would much rather improve what we have got.” The new peer chuckles when I observe that he went to Eton. 

What about Brexit? “I am pulling my hair out on Brexit, like everybody else. I am very much a European and I hate the idea of coming out, but I think I would vote for Mrs May’s deal. It doesn’t rule anything out.”

Few will be aware that Carrington could have just waited to gain a seat in the Lords another way, one even more exclusive that a hereditary by-election. He is a member of one of just three of Britain’s aristocratic families which take turns t0 hold the ancient office of Lord Great Chamberlain. He is due to take over from the current incumbent, the Marquess of Cholmondeley, on the death of the Queen, and the grand title comes with a seat in the Lords. The former Black Rod, David Leakey, describes the role as to represent and attend on the Sovereign in those parts of the Palace where the monarchy still retains some control, which include Westminster Hall. “The Lord Great Chamberlain will have a role at the state opening of Parliament, not least carrying the crown, and also at the official lying in state when the monarch dies – that will be his first major duty,” he says. Planning for the lying in state in Westminster Hall has been quietly underway for years and is understood to involve five days when crowds estimated at up to half a million will be able to file past to pay their last respects.

He may be a new boy in Parliament but Lord Carrington is careful to skirt any controversy, for now at least. He won’t be drawn on the controversy of hereditary by-elections, saying only that his illustrious father spent many years trying to reform the House, and changed his mind a number of times on what the best solution was.

One person who thinks he does know the way ahead is the Labour peer Lord Grocott. He was Tony Blair’s parliamentary aide when most hereditaries were given their marching orders in 1999: the bill cleared the Commons 20 years ago this week. His private member’s bill to abolish any more by-elections – his second attempt at it – comes up for its Report stage in the Lords on Friday. “When the Labour government wanted to remove the hundreds of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, we were faced with the threat of major defeats by these hereditaries sabotaging the bill and our entire programme, so we agreed to leave 90 hereditary peers in place and to allow these absurd by-elections, which were always acknowledged as, at best, a very temporary compromise,” he says. “It was parliamentary blackmail.”

There have been 36 of these by-elections in the two decades since the bill was passed. Grocott predicts that the pace can only increase, with those who remain of the original 90 hereditaries “getting on a bit”, as he puts it tactfully. Since Carrington was elected last November, there was another by-election in January, and ballot papers go out to crossbench peers this week for a by-election to replace the late Viscount Slim.

Grocott fulminates about the by-elections – especially those to replace Labour or Lib Dem hereditary peers: “The last time one of these particularly silly by-elections took place, there were seven candidates for the vacancy and an electorate of just three voters! If there has ever been an election anywhere on this planet in a democracy where the electorate was fewer than half the number of candidates, I would like to hear about it. My bill would scrap any more of these by-elections: it hurts no-one and costs nothing. It just needs government support to stop opponents talking it out.”

Among the bill’s sternest opponents is the Conservative, Lord Trefgarne, a former minister and a hereditary peer for more than half a century. He says the undertaking given by Labour in 1999 was that the arrangements would remain in place “until House of Lords reform was completed”. “When that happens, I shall be happy to go along with it.” Another Tory, the Earl of Caithness, says he backs removing hereditary peers from the Lords eventually but wants no change in their numbers till substantial Lords reform can be agreed. “Politicians are not held in any great respect by the public and I believe that to wilfully repudiate the agreement of 1999 demeans them even more,” he says.

That is certainly not the view of the pressure group, the Electoral Reform Society. Its chief executive, Darren Hughes, says the by-elections make Parliament a laughing-stock and calls on the government to back Grocott’s bill. “While MPs debate what ‘taking back control’ really means, Lords are choosing yet another hereditary aristocrat to vote on our laws for life. We must not allow filibustering by hereditaries to block long-overdue reform to the House of Lords on Friday.”


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