Seven stand, three vote, in bizarre Lords ballot

One of the most bizarre elections in British constitutional history will officially begin tomorrow when the Clerk of the Parliaments, Paul Hayter, announces the full list of candidates in a by-election for a seat in the House of Lords.

The rules for the election were described as "ludicrous" by Robin Cook, who led the failed attempt to introduce proper elections to the upper house. He is not exaggerating. This may be the first election in British history in which the eligible candidates outnumber those allowed to vote.

Voting will take place on Thursday. The only people allowed to stand are heirs to hereditary titles which would have qualified them for a seat in the House of Lords, but who are excluded by an Act of Parliament passed in 1999. To narrow the field further, they must also have declared their allegiance to the Labour Party.

Until tomorrow's announce-ment, we cannot know exactly how many of their lordships meet these strict criteria, but the total is probably seven.

There were 18 hereditary Labour peers in the Lords in 1999, when 14 were stripped of voting rights. Two were reinstated and another five given life peerages, so they do not count. That leaves seven, among them Lord Gifford, a human rights lawyer, and Lord Monkswell, a former Manchester councillor.

If the field seems narrow, it is not as narrow as the electorate. The three voters are the hereditary Labour peers who retained their seats in 1999. Originally there were four, but Lord Milner of Leeds died in September, creating the current vacancy.

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