What is the significance of by-elections?

By-Elections are in the news a lot at the moment. So what is a by-election, why are they held and what is their significance?

What is a by-election and in what circumstances will they be held?

A by-election is an election called when a seat has been vacated within a constituency but there is no General Election looming. In the United States these care called Special Elections. In the UK there are four circumstances in which a by-election will be held:

  1. If an MP dies
Jack Dromey was the last MP to die in office.

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. At the time of writing the last MP to pass away in office was Jack Dromey, the widely respected Labour MP.

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

Sir David Amess was respected from every corner of the House of Commons.

Sir David Amess – In 2021 David Amess, the MP for Southend West, was murdered during one his constituency surgeries. In April 2022 his killer, Ali Harbi Ali, was sentenced to a life imprisonment.

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 both Sir David Amess and Jo Cox, the major parties agreed not to stand in the following by-elections to ensure that the seat was won by the parties that already held it, something that would at least honour the wishes of the deceased.

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.

Tracy Brabin is the Current Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds.
Owen Paterson is the current Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead

3. Due to a term of imprisonment for over one year

Any sitting MP who is imprisoned for a period of more than one year is automatically disbarred from the House of Commons. This has only happened twice since 1945:

Peter Baker (Conservative) – Imprisoned for forgery in 1954.

John Stonehouse (Labour) – Imprisoned for seven years for fraud.

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

Until 2015 death, resignation and imprisonment of over one year were the only circumstances under which an MP could be removed. However, Recall of MPs Act (2015) extended that list through a new constitutional mechanism. A recall petition can be initiated 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.

As of April 2022 two by-elections have been held due to successful 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. During a by-election national attention is focused on the constituency. Whilst minor parties are still unlikely to win the by-election, they can get higher than normal media coverage through them. 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 thankfully now 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, between 2016 and 2019 Brexit was 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.

What has the result been in recent by-elections?

Birmingham Erdington (March 2022)

Reason for By-Election: The death of Labour MP Jack Dromey

Previous Majority: 3,601

Result: Labour Hold (Majority 3,266)

Labour candidate Paulette Hamilton retained the seat that was always likely to return a Labour candidate. Indeed, it has been a Labour seat since 1936.

Helen Morgan won a remarkable by-election victory in North Shropshire in 2021.

North Shropshire (2021)

Reason for By-Election: The resignation of Owen Paterson following a lobbying scandal.

Previous Majority: 22,949

Result: Liberal Democrat Gain (5,925)

In one of the most remarkable by-elections there have ever been the Liberal Democrats secured a by-election swing of 34% from the Conservatives to Liberal Democrats. In fact, the swing was so big that if it were repeated in a General Election the Liberal Democrats would have a majority government. The fact that the election came following a scandal involving the previous Conservative MP and during the first questions over ‘partygate’ enhanced the Liberal Democrat majority – but it was an amazing result irregardless of this.

Hartlepool (2021)

Reason for By-Election: Labour MP Mike Hill resigned due to allegation of sexual assault.

Previous Majority: 3,595

Result: Conservative victory with 51.9% of the vote.

This was the first by-election following the 2019 General Election and was a significant test of public opinion for both Labour and the Conservatives. The seat was one of the Red Wall seats that had not fallen to the Conservatives in the 2019 election. The by-election was a chance for Labour to show that the fall of the Red Wall seats was an schism attributable solely to Brexit. The Conservatives however managed to win the seat and this was only the second time since 1982 that the governing party had won a by-election.

Article Summary

By-Elections happen relatively regularly in British Politics due to resignations and deaths of MPs. These by-elections are usually extremely hard for the governing party to win and are often a referendum on the party in power in Downing Street. They are important moments as they bring national focus and provides an electoral test for parties between General Elections.

Key Terms

By-Election – An election that takes place between General Elections to fill a vacancy in the House of Commons.

Recall of MPs Act (2015) – An Act passed by the UK House of Commons that allows for an MP to be recalled from Parliament by their constituents in three specific circumstances.

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