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Is it Bye-bye to by-elections?

April 21st, 2019

Sunil looks at the trend and the reasons why

This is a two-part series bringing to your attention the decline of the humble Westminster by-election over the last 100 years. In Part 1, I will discuss how the reasons for triggering by-elections have changed since 1918. In Part 2, I will discuss in more detail the phenomenon (or lack) of MPs resigning and re-contesting their seats over principle or when they change party allegiance.

Since the 1918 election, when universal suffrage was first introduced, just over 100 years ago, there have been a grand total of 1,018 Westminster by-elections (not including the most recent contest in Newport West), or an average of 10.18 by-elections per calendar year from 1919 to 2018 inclusive, according to my calculations (which are sometimes correct!). Of course this makes the Newport West by-election held on 4th April this year the 1,019th. There was actually a 1020th by-election, for Dublin University way back in 1919, but as that was on the territory of the current Irish Republic, I have excluded it. Incidentally, that by-election was the very last Westminster election that took place in “Southern Ireland”.

As you can see in the graph  showing the annual trend between 1919 and 2018, by-elections were very much more common before c.1959.

The following table shows the various causes of by-elections and how numerous they were over the last hundred years. Although one could say this is a morbid subject to touch on, the following table clearly shows that less than half of all these by-elections involved the death of the incumbent, including those murdered. Four of the murders were perpetrated by the IRA, and the fifth victim was Jo Cox, assassinated by a far right extremist. In times gone by, elevations to the peerage were far more common, including those involving succession to a family title. Also, so-called Ministerial by-elections took place until abolished in 1926, whereupon MPs had to resign and re-contest when they became Ministers or other “Offices of Profit under the Crown”. And during the time of Empire, MPs often resigned when given postings as Governors of various exotic lands, among other non-political appointments.

 

Reason for by-election No. of by-elections 1919-2018
Death 502
Murdered 5
Peerage 159
Resignation 279
Void/Disqualified 10
Ministerial (1919-1926) 20
Seeking re-election after resignation 25
Scandal/Expelled 18

 

The distribution of the various reasons changed markedly in recent decades compared to the earlier decades during previous 100 years. For simplicity’s sake, I’m counting decades from 1919-1928, 1929-1938 and so on. Elevations to the Peerage, resignations (for various reasons), and death amongst serving MPs seemed to be far more common up until 1959, plus you had those so-called “Ministerial by-elections” (abolished in 1926). For example, the peak year for by-elections was 1940, with a total of 39, followed closely by 1921 with 37.

If we go by “blocks” of 20 years, during the 20 years from 1919 to 1938, there was an average of 17.7 by-elections per year, from 1939 to 1958 there was an average of 16.1, but the rate halved from 1959 to 1978 when there was an average of only 8.9 per year. And from 1979 to 1998, the rate fell further to only 5.0 by-elections per year, despite a spike in 1986 due to the Northern Irish resignations (more on that in Part 2). And within the last twenty years, 1999 to 2018, the rate fell even further to only 3.3 per year. In fact in each of 2017 and 2018, there were only two by-elections! Including Jo Cox, only 28 MPs died between 1999 and 2018, compared with 159 between 1919 and 1938. In fact, more MPs resigned than died during 1999-2018, including a number who had to leave office after some scandal or other. Mention must also be made of uncontested by-elections: there were 122 of these in the time frame we’re discussing, but the last of these was in Armagh (a UUP hold) in 1954.

Rather more fun facts include 1998 being the only year in UK electoral history without either any Westminster by-elections or a General Election, and the General Election years of 1992 and 2010 being the only others without any by-elections. The longest “gap” between two by-elections was the 567 days between 20th November 1997 and 10th June 1999. So it would appear that nowadays MPs lead more healthy lives (only 10 incumbent MPs have died since 2009) , or they leave parliament while still relatively young. Or, in the case of Change UK, they are keeping their powder dry! That’s 11 by-elections that might have been but never were – oh , well! Anyway, more on that in Part 2….

 

Sunil Prasannan