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Forget Metro Mayors – parliamentary elections where candidates can outnumber voters

Forget Metro Mayors – parliamentary elections where candidates can outnumber voters

🕔02.Apr 2017

With the appearance of the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and now barely 726 days left in which to reach a Brexit deal, I thought Files devotees might appreciate a quick run through of the 52,741 laws introduced in the UK as a consequence of EU legislation since 1990 – or even the 12,000+ regulations the Government’s White Paper reckons are still in force – and that will eventually have to be accepted, amended or repealed by our parliamentarians, teases Chris Game….

Then I realised the editor would probably only get upset by the word length, and would spot that not all 52,741 related even tangentially to the West Midlands, let alone to the mayoral election that occupies most of his waking hours (too true, Ed.)

So then I thought of looking simply at how this form of delegated legislation known collectively as Statutory Instruments (SIs) would normally be dealt with – a process in which, as it happens, the House of Lords has a multiple oversight role.

Its members form part of the Joint Parliamentary Committee that checks that the Minister making the SI is empowered to do so. It also has its own Committee on the Merits of SIs that considers their intended purpose and whether, for instance, a European law is being implemented inappropriately.

But I bored even myself just typing that last paragraph, so decided to opt instead for something nearly as topical and far more entertaining, not to say bizarre – House of Lords by-elections.

There are two things even my least engaged students used to think they knew about members of the Lords – and were confident enough to bet on it. First, that there were (even then) far too many of them, and second, that they couldn’t vote in parliamentary elections – that is, in elections to the other part of the legislature of which they were already members.

About the first they were dead right; on the second, close but I’d win the bet. As confirmed by Archbishop Runcie’s revelation of his (anti-Thatcher) vote in the 1983 General Election, some peers – the so-called Lords Spiritual, the 26 senior bishops of the established Church of England – whose membership is regarded as temporary, are entitled to vote in parliamentary elections.

As, of course, are the 660 or so hereditary peers (or their descendants) who lost their seats in the Blair Government’s great House of Lords reform cull of 1999.

Or arguably not so great. For the remaining 90 hereditaries – instead of literally just dying away and leaving at least a non-hereditary House, if not a rationally constituted democratic one – are allowed, whenever one of their seats falls vacant, to elect a successor in a farcical by-election charade that would look OTT in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

The most recent performance was staged just a few days ago, its essence captured neatly by the Mirror: “Tory aristocrat joins Parliament for life by winning 143 votes in ‘Blackadder’ by-election – Old Etonian finance boss, Lord Colgrain, can now make laws until the day he dies after beating 26 rivals in the world’s most elitist election”.

There’s so much wrong and nationally embarrassing about this practice it’s hard to know where to begin. The more so as this whole blog was intended as a diversion from a mayoral election in which serious candidates are fighting in exceedingly difficult conditions to gain the votes of nearly 2 million largely apathetic voters in order to do an equally difficult job for just three years – after which they’ve got to do it all again.

Let’s start, though, with the 143 votes – which, as can be seen from my table, is really, really good. Indeed, it might well be close to a record.





Of the 90 leftover hereditaries, 15 had the function of serving the whole House as deputy Speakers and other office holders. So when one of them snuffs it – or, very rarely, decides to retire – their  replacement is chosen in a by-election in which all Lords can vote. That’s currently a ridiculous and costly 804, or half as many again as the US House of Representatives and Senate combined.

Not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of candidates anxious to serve their country for just the £300 daily attendance allowance, travel expenses and subsidised restaurant facilities.

So last week’s slate of 27 candidates was, if anything, on the low side for whole House by-elections, and in the case of other vacancies, voted for by only hereditary peers in the respective party or Crossbench group, it’s not a rarity for candidates to outnumber the electorate – which admittedly produces some impressively high percentage turnouts.

It’s indefensible by any standards, and yet nothing much is about to change. The immediate reason, bringing this blog full circle, being of course Brexit.

You may recall, less than 18 months ago, how we had an alleged ‘constitutional crisis’, as the Lords voted to delay Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget proposals to cut family tax credits until the Government agreed to compensate low earners. No one had died, no law broken, but a longstanding constitutional convention had been challenged by this Upper House intervention in something indisputably financial.

The Government was furious, set, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, to “have such revenges on you … I will do such things – what they are yet I know not – but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

Well, not quite, but there was a plan to curb some of the Lords’ powers, including the ability to veto Statutory Instruments. And now, needless to say, there isn’t.

Cameron and Osborne are gone, replaced by Brexit and May. And power-curbing has gone, because who else is going to scrutinise all those mountains of SIs in the Great Repeal Bill?  Keep a look-out, then, for yet more farcical by-elections.

Pic: House of Lords reform, UK Parliament

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