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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The principled socialist aproach to hereditary peerages

Today's Times has a pretty astonishing story regarding the legacy of the late Tony Benn. The paper says that Stephen Michael Wedgwood Benn, eldest son of the late Labour MP and the brother of the shadow cabinet minister Hilary, has formally “established his claim” to the Viscountcy of Stansgate.

They add that his decision, announced in the House of Lords, means that he is free to run in a by-election for a seat in the second chamber when a place on the Labour benches comes up.

The paper sets out the history of this title:

If Dr Benn, 63, a political lobbyist, moved into the Lords it would represent another extraordinary chapter in the family’s history. The peerage was first bestowed on Mr Benn’s grandfather, the Labour cabinet minister William Wedgwood Benn, in January 1942.

The title was to be passed down to “the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, by the name, style and title of Viscount Stansgate, of Stansgate in the County of Essex”.

Tony Benn, who died aged 88 in March, inherited it when his father died in 1960. He had been trying to change the law for years to allow hereditary peers to give up their title, but acquiring his peerage disqualified him from keeping his Bristol South East seat in the Commons.

He was eligible to run in the resulting by-election, which he won. However, the title meant that he was unable to take up the seat, which was taken by his Tory rival.

It took a three-year battle to secure the Conservative government’s support for a bill allowing him to renounce the peerage. The change in the law ensured that it still passed down the generations.

The Peerage Act 1963 officially became law on July 31, 1963. Mr Benn became the first peer to renounce his title minutes later.

But most extraordinary is the circumstances by which Dr. Benn might take up a seat in the Lords. The paper says that the number of hereditary peers allowed to sit in the Lords is limited to 92 in law.  Labour has four. By convention, peers usually have to wait for a hereditary peer in their own party to die to take their place.

If a vacancy did occur then Dr Benn would have the luxury of being able to target his electorate. In the event of a by-election, the three remaining Labour hereditary peers would each have a vote.

However, he could fill one of two current vacancies for crossbench peers and then move to the Labour benches.

Nice work if you can get it.

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