The British constitution sometimes begets very strange things. On April 19, the Liberal Democrat hereditary peers held a by-election to fill the vacancy caused by Lord Avebury’s death. The result was an election where seven candidates competed for the votes of three people (ironically, the winner, Viscount Thurso, received 11,987 votes in last May’s General Election yet failed to hold on to his seat).
These by-elections are one of newer quirks of the British constitution. Although the vast majority of hereditary peers were expelled from the House of Lords in 1999, the Government struck a deal with the Shadow Leader of the Lords that allowed 92 of them to remain until the House was fully reformed. Seventy five (i.e., ten percent of the total number of hereditary peers) would be elected by hereditary peers in Parliament who belong to a political party or sit on the Crossbenches (42 are Conservatives, 2 are Labour, 3 are Liberal Democrats, and 28 are Crossbenchers) while 15 would be chosen by the whole House to serve as Deputy Speakers. The peers who hold the offices of Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain would sit ex-officio.
This was supposed to be a temporary provision that would only last until the House was fully reformed. However, the final hurdle has proven insurmountable. There have been a few attempts to remove the hereditary peers as a standalone measure, but none of them gained much traction. The status quo is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future–any attempt to remove the hereditary peers that isn’t part of a program for wider reform will likely run aground in the House of Lords. In theory, the Government could use the Parliament Acts to overcome peers’ resistance, but Ministers seem in no hurry to instigate a long, bruising battle over something that’s largely symbolic. For now, the hereditary peers’ centuries-long tradition of parliamentary service will continue.