With the death of Earl Ferrers in November, a by-election for a seat in the House of Lords is pending. After Conservative backbenchers derailed Nick Clegg’s plans for an elected, reformed House of Lords last July, it was widely stated that this was—at least for a considerable time—the end of any idea of members of the upper house being voted in. Yet there have been elections—albeit very peculiar ones—to the Lords since November 2002, with the first election occurring in March 2003 when Viscount Ullswater was elected to replace the deceased Viscount Oxfuird.
When the House of Lords Act excluded the vast majority of hereditary peers in 1999, as part of the deal between the Labour government and Lord Cranbourne—now the Marquess of Salisbury, then the leader of the Conservative peers in the House of Lords, subsequently sacked for his insubordination by William Hague—92 hereditaries were allowed to retain their seats. Of these, 15 were elected by the House of Lords as a whole and the remainder by their fellow hereditaries from their own respective party groups in proportion to how many there were in each group. The Tory hereditaries elected 42 of their own to remain (Earl Ferrers came top of the ballot); the crossbenchers elected 28; and the Liberal Democrats and Labour three and two respectively. Until 2002 deceased members were replaced by the runners-up from the ballots in 1999.
Since then vacancies have been filled through by-elections. The only people allowed to stand are those who would otherwise be entitled to sit in the House of Lords if it were not for the 1999 Act. The electorates are the whole House of Lords, if it is for a vacancy for one of the 15 seats initially elected by the whole House, and the other hereditary peers who have retained their seats on the crossbenches or the respective party groups if it is one of those seats that falls vacant—so the surviving Tory hereditaries will elect Earl Ferrers’s successor using the alternative vote some time before February 13.
The two most recent by-elections were in July 2011. In a vote of the whole House 20 candidates came forward, and Viscount Colville narrowly defeated the Duke of Somerset. Lord Ashton of Hyde was elected from the Tory hereditaries, in a landslide victory of 23 votes to his nearest rival’s seven.
Perhaps the two strangest elections occurred to fill vacancies among the Labour and Lib Dem hereditaries. In 2005 there was a 100 per cent turnout by the Lib Dem electorate of four to replace the late Earl Russell. All four votes went to the Earl of Glasgow, a percentage Stalin would have envied. In 2003 an even smaller electorate—three—voted in the replacement poll to replace the deceased Labour peer Lord Milner. Lord Grantchester squeaked in, recording two votes to Viscount Hanworth’s one. P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth might be a decent bet the next time their lordships are summoned to vote.