The so-called “Silly Season” seems endless in Westminster. The sad death last month of my Liberal Democrat colleague Lord (Robert) Methuen – alongside whom I often shared the furthest backbench corner seat and enjoyed his erudite company – has sparked the most ludicrous farce.
Let me explain. An official green four-page notice, announcing the resulting “vacancy among the excepted hereditary peers”, has arrived from the Clerk of the Parliaments. I extract a summary.
“Under Standing Order 10, this vacancy is to be filled by means of a by-election …… Lord Methuen was one of the 15 hereditary peers elected by the whole House in 1999, from among those ready to serve as Deputy Speakers or in any other office. Therefore, under Standing Order 10(3), his successor will be elected by the whole House …… Those eligible to stand are all those hereditary peers whose names are listed in the register of hereditary peers wishing to stand for election as members of the House of Lords maintained by the Clerk of the Parliaments……. Candidates will be invited, but not required, to declare party affiliation, or where appropriate, their intention to stand as independent “Crossbenchers”……. Candidates will also be invited, but not required, to submit statements in support of their candidature …..For this by-election the House Administration will make no arrangements for a hustings”.
Confused? You are not alone. Let my try to disentagle. Since Lord Methuen had been on the Deputy Speaker roll, the muddled set of rules means not only that all Peers get a vote in choosing his replacement but that all former hereditary peers of whichever party are entitled to stand. In the past the House has tended to elect a replacement member from the same Party as the person who died but candidates from other parties (and no party) stand, and get substantial numbers of votes. There is nothing hard and fast to say that Lord Methuen – a staunch Liberal Democrat – may not be replaced by someone from another party entirely. Furthermore the House authorities’ decision not to hold a hustings means that we the electors have no formal chance of teasing out the various candidates’ intentions.
In a further ironic twist, the guidance tells us that the “Alternative Vote System will be used”. I wonder if all those very many Peers – Conservative and Labour – who campaigned so vigorously and voluably against the AV system in 2011 on the grounds that it was unfair and dangerously undemocratic might register their protest by abstaining in the byelection? It’s curious how such a system is the obvious choice when legislators are the electors, but not when electors are choosing legislators.
Finally, who can now argue that this bizarre method of choosing members of the Lords – all the existing Peers choosing among a random descendant of a Peer thrown out in 1999 – is a more logical than that proposed in the 2012 reform bill (proper elections, where the public are the electors), which was approved at second reading by a large majority of MPs in July 2012?