What is the significance of by-elections?

A by-election is an election that is called when a seat has been vacated within a constituency but there is no General Election looming. In the United States these elections are called special elections. There are three circumstances in which a by-election will be held:

  1. If an MP dies

The average age of MPs elected at the 2019 General Election was 51 whilst 21 MPs elected were over the age of 70. With 650 MPs in total, it is not surprising that sometimes a vacancy emerges because of the death of an MP.

Paul Flynn, author of the book ‘How to be an MP’ is the last MP to die whilst holding his seat.

The last MP to die in office was the charismatic Labour MP Paul Flynn who died in February 2019 after a long battle with illness. The subsequent by-election was won by Labour’s Ruth Jones.

Most MPs who do die in office do so of natural causes. However, unfortunately some have been murdered, including:

Jo Cox – Jo Cox was murdered in June 2016 by a far-right extremist in a senseless attack. The tributes pad to Jo Cox from every corner of the House of Commons left no doubt that she was seen as a highly dedicated and courageous Member of Parliament.

Ian Gow – Ian Gow was killed by a car bomb placed under his car by the Provisional IRA. The Provisional IRA claimed the responsibility for the attack and said that Gow had been targeted due to his close relationship with Margaret Thatcher.

Airey Neave was assassinated not far from the House of Commons.

Airey Neave – Like Gow, Conservative MP Airey Neave was killed by a car bomb. In this case, responsibility was claimed by the Irish National Liberation Army. Neave had been Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and believed that the IRA had to be faced head on by the British Government. In the case of Neave, no by-election was needed as he died in March 1979 but a General Election was scheduled for May 1979. His seat was comfortably won by the Conservatives.

Jo Cox was respected across the House of Commons and beyond.

In the case of Jo Cox, the major parties agreed not to stand in the following by-election to ensure that the seat was won by Labour, something that would at least honour the wishes of the deceased. One hopes that this might have started a convention to be followed in the unfortunate event that an MP loses their life in similar circumstances in the future.

2. If an MP Resigns

Gordon Brown was an extremely inactive MP between 2010 and 2015.

When most MPs resign they decide to stay in their seat until the next General Election. There is no job description for an MP so they can essentially ‘take it easy’ until the election arrives. For example, after Gordon Brown lost the 2010 General Election he remained as a Labour MP. However, he was extremely inactive during this period, rarely attending or speaking in debates. In the whole Parliament he only voted in 152 of 1239 votes, 12.3% of the total.

However, some MPs do step down immediately. For example, Labour MP Tristram Hunt resigned in January 2017 in order to become Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Interestingly, MPs do not ever technically resign. This is because to do so would be an affront to Her Majesty The Queen. They are therefore given the honorary title of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds or Crown Steward of the Manor of Northstead. Traditionally, a paid title from the monarch would preclude someone from being an MP. Therefore, being ‘promoted’ to Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds or Steward of the Manor of Northstead allowed an MP to resign without offending the monarch.

John Mann is the Current Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds.
Jon Bercow is currently Crown Steward of the Manor of Northstead.

3. Due to a successful recall petition under the Recall of MPs Act (2015)

Until 2015 death, resignation or the loss at an election were the only three ways that someone could stop sitting as an MP. However, the passage of the Recall of MPs Act in 2015 added a new mechanism.

A recall petition can be iniaited if any of the following three criteria are met:

  • An MP is imprisoned for less than a year (imprisonment of more than year automatically disqualifies MPs from sitting in the House of Commons).
  • An MP is suspended from the House of Commons for 10 or more sitting days or 14 or more calendar days.
  • An MP is convicted for providing false expenses claims.

More can be read about the Recall of MPs Act here.

Two by-elections have been held due to sucessful recall petitions under the Act:

Fiona Onasanya was convicted of perverting the course of justice.

Labour MP Fiona Onasanya was imprisoned for perverting the course of justice. A total of 28% of her constituents signed the recall petition (10% is needed to force a by-election). Onasanya did not stand in the resultant by-election which was narrowly won by Labour’s Lisa Forbes.

Christopher of Davies was convicted of submitting false expenses claims.

Conservative MP Christopher Davies was convicted for providing false expenses claims. A total of (18.9%) of his constituents voted to trigger a by-election. Davies decided to stand in the resultant by-election and, bizarrely, was even selected to be the Conservative candidate. The Liberal Democrats won the by-election with Jane Dodds becoming the MP (although she lost her seat just four months later in the 2019 General Election).

Why are by-elections significant?

One of the particular problems with by-elections is that they often have low turnout compared to General Elections. In some ways this is surprising, as national focus is placed on the area in question. However, the hype created by the run-up to a General Elections is missing and this often produces lower turnout. For example, the 2012 Manchester Central By-Election had turnout of just 18.2%.

Despite generally lower turnouts, there are ways in which by-elections can be significant:

  1. They provide a showcase for smaller parties.

By-Elections provide the national focus that minor parties crave. Minor parties are still unlikely to win the by-election. However, in 2014 UKIP won two seats through by-elections in 2014. These remain the only seats UKIP have won in the UK Parliament.

Even if they do not win the seat, it brings minor parties national media exposure that they may not receive during a General Election. By-Elections normally see far more candidates than a normal election would see in the constituency. The highest number of candidates in a by-election was an incredible 26 in the 2008 by-election in Haltemprice and Howden.

The BNP and Nick Griffin have largely disappeared from being a significant part of UK Politics.

By-Elections can often see relative success for extremist parties. For example, in the 2011 by-election in Barnsley Central and 2012 Rotherham by-election saw the British National Party (BNP) finish in 3rd and 4th position.

2. They often become mini-referendums on a particular issue.

At times, by-elections can become referendums on the dominant political issue of the day. Notably, since 2016 Brexit has become a dominant issue in by-elections. However, often by-elections are dominated by local or more niche issues:

Peter Tatchell remains an activist

1983 Bermondsey – The by-election in Bermondsey in 1983 became dominated by the issue of homosexuality. The Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, was homosexual. Although the Labour Party urged him to keep quiet about this, it became a major issue in the campaign and he was attacked by his fellow candidates in a horrific campaign. The winning Liberal Party seemingly joined in with the homophobic attacks, with some male campaigners wearing a badge saying “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell”. Tatchell was emphatically defeated, despite it being previously a very safe Labour seat in the 1979 election. Britain was a far more socially conservative country in 1983 than it is today, and it showed in the election result.

2008 Haltemprice and Howden – Conservative MP David Davies resigned in order to force a by-election in 2008. He resigned in protest at what he perceived to be the erosion of civil liberties in the UK. The by-election saw a record 26 candidates, even though both the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats refused to put forward a candidate (Labour called it a farce, whilst the Lib Dems said they supported Davis’ stance on civil liberties). Davies comfortably won the by-election, with many of the debates surrounding issues of civil liberty.

Sarah Olney won the 2016 Richmond Park by-election after it turned into a mini-referendum on Brexit.

2016 Richmond Park – This by-election was caused by Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigning. He was resigning as an MP in protest at the government’s decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. He ran in the by-election as an independent candidate and hoped to be elected and send a clear message to the government over its plans for Heathrow. Despite Goldsmith’s plans, the by-election became a mini-referendum on Brexit, which was by far the dominant issue in the resulting campaign. Even though the Conservatives did not put up a candidate against Goldsmith, the election was won by Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney.

3. They are often a reflection on the current government.

Governments tend to perform extremely poorly in by-elections. By-Elections often become a referendum on the performance of the party in government. However, they are also harder for the governing party to win than General Elections as they are not really able to put forward a raft of new policies. Notably, between 1982 and 2017 the governing party made no gains (winning seats they did not hold previously) at by-elections.

In summary, by-elections have a significance far beyond predicting who will in the next General Elections and, historically, local election, rather than by-elections, are a better indicator of General Election outcomes.

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