Politics

There's An Election To Parliament That Only Three People Can Vote In

A twisted version of democracy is going on in the House of Lords this month.

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On 19 April possibly the strangest democratic election to any legislature in the world will take place, with seven candidates competing for the votes of three people for one place in the British parliament.

The winning individual will be able to vote on laws, propose amendments, and challenge ministers in parliament. They'll also be able to claim £300 a day whenever they turn up to work, take advantage of all the facilities parliament offers, and retain the job for life.

Turnout for the ballot is expected to hit 100% since the entire electorate, who collectively get to choose who will receive lifetime membership of parliament, consists of just three people.

Any British citizen is eligible to stand for election to the position on the conditions that a) they are a Liberal Democrat, and b) they have inherited a peerage from their father.

It’s a Liberal Democrat House of Lords hereditary by-election and it’s all a bit bizarre.

How the hell did we end up here?

In 1999 Labour reformed the House of Lords and kicked out almost all of the 800-odd hereditary peers from parliament’s upper chamber. These were people who had inherited the right to sit in parliament, often because their great-great-great-great-grandfather had fought a major battle or was born as a result of someone's affair with the king of the day and so some ancestor had been given a peerage.

As a compromise to get the House of Lords changes approved, Labour allowed 92 of these hereditary peers to temporarily remain in parliament until further reforms took place.

The problem is, the further reforms never actually took place and the hereditary peers have become a permanent, slightly embarrassing feature. Every so often one of them dies or retires, forcing a by-election to find a replacement aristocrat to take the allocated space.

"When the Lords was partially reformed in 1999, the idea was that the remaining hereditaries would be like a bit of grit in the shoe, to provide an incentive to carry on with the reform process," explains Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. "Instead it's become easier to limp on, enduring the grit, year after year. I don't think anyone involved can justify it – at least not with a straight face."

To make things even stranger the remaining 92 hereditary peerages were allocated to individual political parties, with the Liberal Democrats currently holding just three of the slots.

One of these Liberal Democrat hereditary peers, the 4th Baron Avebury, died earlier this year and there’s now a by-election to take his place in the House of Lords.

Seven eligible Lib Dem-supporting aristocrats are fighting for the chance to enter parliament. All are white men: Lord Calverly, Lord Thurso, the new Lord Avebury, Lord Kennet, Lord Lloyd-George, Lord Somerleyton, and Lord Russell.

Each of the seven has been asked to submit a short manifesto, and they make interesting reading.

Lord Calverley, a retired police officer who holds the title because his grandfather was an MP, is pledging to combat peers who have "usurped their new-found status for their own cupidity". Lord Carlisle, who previously worked at a university in Estonia, is promising to protect the Baltic states.

Lord Kennet is asking to be elected to parliament because he "implemented the world’s first nationwide home-delivery service of fresh and chilled food, bringing zero carbon emission organic food to consumers nationwide". Meanwhile, Lord Somerleyton lists one of his occupations as running a "gourmet chip shop" near Ipswich and insists he is committed to the "marriage between enriched native wildlife diversity and enriched human diet".

To make thing even stranger Lord Thurso, another of the candidates, has already sat in the House of Lords as a hereditary peer but was kicked out in the purge of 1999. He was then elected to the House of Commons in 2001 for the constituency of Caithness before being kicked out of parliament for the second time in 2015, when his constituents decided to vote for the SNP instead. All of this means he could soon become one of the few people to sit in parliament three times while only having to receive the backing of the general public for one of these stints.

Still following? Good. The entire electorate consists of the three current Liberal Democrat hereditary peers in the House of Lords: the 10th Earl of Glasgow, the 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith, and the 6th Baron Addington.

Given the winning candidate needs only two of these votes, BuzzFeed News decided to conduct a unique experiment: the first-ever comprehensive opinion poll of the entire electorate for a British parliamentary election.

This is how the electorate responded when asked how they would vote:

10th Earl of Glasgow: No response.

3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith: No response.

6th Baron Addington: “I think it would be in extremely bad taste to announce to the general public how I intended to vote unless I have spoken to each of the candidates personally first.”

So there you have it.

The lucky winner, who will receive a lifetime place in the House of Lords, will be declared on 19 April.


CORRECTION

Alec Douglas-Home aka Lord Home, who was prime minister for a year in 1963-64, was the first person to flit between the House of Lords and House of Commons on multiple occasions. An earlier version of this article suggested Lord Thurso could achieve that honour.


Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at jim.waterson@buzzfeed.com.

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