With barely a whisper of a mention in the dead tree press, the single least interesting election in British political history is taking place as I write, that of the new Speaker of the House of Lords.
To someone not steeped in the oddities of the British parliamentary system, the House of Lords must seem, on first sight, to be an utterly bewildering and anachronistic place. Just consider this for a moment, up until Blair’s first tranche of Lords’ reforms, which removed the vast majority of hereditary peers from the House, there never had been an election proper in the House of Lords and yet, today, elections are held for seats in the second chamber, albeit infrequently…
…but only to elect hereditary peers to the House to replensh the 92 hereditaries still permitted to sit in the House in event of the death of an incumbent.
What a curious state of affairs and one from which one can quickly come to understand that elections in the House of Lords are not really like those held in any other sphere of democratic life.
Much the same can be said of election of a Speaker for the House of Lords, the need for which has arisen out of constitutional reforms contained in the prosaically titled Constitutional Reform Act 2005 under which the ancient office of the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain – to give the full title – was first stripped of its position at the head of judiciary and now of its role as Speaker of the House of Lords.
And what, you might well ask, does the Speaker of the House of Lords do?
Well, very little from what one can tell. As far as one can see the successful candidate will put in something of the order of a 12-hour week in the actual chamber of the House, sitting for three hours or so at a time on the Woolsack, which actually is as it sounds, a large wool-stuffed cushion coverd in red cloth, which no back or sides/armrests, on which the Speaker (or previously the Lord Chancellor) was required to sit while presiding over the House in session.
Beyond that, it seems the Speaker has little or nothing much to do except for occasionally advising peers on points of procedure and ruling on the odd request for a short debate on an urgent issue – given the stupifying gentility of proceeding in the House of Lords, the new Speaker, unlike their counterpart in the House of Commons, doesn’t even appear to get the perk of shouting ‘Order. Order’ from time to time, let alone any actual authority over the House.
It comes as no great surprise to find, therefore, that the overriding theme of the election campaign for this new position has been the importance of continuity and not rocking the boat, with the nine candidates (listed at the end of this piece) fair falling over each other in their efforts to promise to do as little as possible in the role, making this also possibly the least reforming piece of constitutional reform in history.
Why, you might well, ask, am I even bothering to write about this if, as stated, the only changes that will arise from this whole business are entirely cosmetic?
Well, at the risk of turning, albeit briefly, into Wat Tyler there is one element to this story on which it is certainly worth reflecting, and that’s the remuneration package that goes with this new job.
For sitting on a red cushion for 12 hours a week and doing as little as possible, the Speaker of the House of Lords will receive an annual salary of £101,688 plus a £34,000 expenses package and new ceremonial robes the costs of which is estimated to be around £10,000 – nice job if you can get it then, although in defence of the role, House of Lords’ Work and Pensions minister Lord Hunt has said that he doubts the job would be limited to about 12 hours a week as there was:
"a lot of other work to do, committee meetings and a general leadership role".
Which is hardly the most reassuring statement as it really does sound like one of those vague and rigorously non-committal answers that you invariably get from a politician who has no real idea what they’re actually about but are equally desperate not reveal their ignorance of the subject at hand. Apparently, as well, the new Speaker wiill be the ‘Lords’ Ambassador’, which sounds like a fine excuse for lots of jolly junkets, official receptions and expensive lunches at the taxpayer’s expense – so much so that you begin to wonder quite why John Prescott didn’t take enoblement as a way out of recent difficulties and throw his hat into the ring for this job as it seems to be even less taxing than the one he’s already got.
Okay, so to be fair, £135,000 a year in salary and expenses plus a £10,000 makeover – I wonder, would Trinny and Susannah have been cheaper – is loose change compared the sums of taxpayer’s money routinely pissed down the drain on trying to salvage the Child Support Agency or setting up the new all-singing, all-dancing (and over time/budget) NHS computer system but there’s still something about the whole business of paying an unelected peer over £100,000 of taxpayer’s money, for sitting on a big cushion and doing next to bugger all, that reeks of elitist contempt for the British public – I’m pretty sure that for much less than that we could have got Tussaud’s to knock up an animatronic waxwork of Charile Falconer, which would be no less effective in government than the real thing.
For the record, and just finish thing off, the candidates for the best paid non-job in Parliament are as follows:
Lord Boston of Faversham, a crossbencher and former MP and minister
Lord Elton, a former Conservative government minister
Baroness Fookes, Conservative peer and former Commons deputy speaker
Lord Grenfell, the chairman of the Lords European Union Committee
Baroness Hayman, former Labour MP and minister
Countess of Mar, independent peer who has been a deputy chairman of committees since 1997
Lord Redesdale, Liberal Democrat frontbench spokesman and scion of the Mitford family
Lord Richard, former Labour Leader of the Lords
Viscount Ullswater, a Conservative peer and a current deputy chairman of committees.
No, can’t say I’d vote for any of them either…
Oh, should mention, the title quotation of this piece…
“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”
… is by Gore Vidal.