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


ChangeUK is in danger of running out of steam and it has only itself to blame

April 21st, 2019

Having to face two big elections in a very short period of time looks as though it has taken its toll on TIG following what appear to have been a number of strategic mistakes.

The following comment by IanB2 on the PB thread last night, is a good analysis and is worthy of a full thread on its own.

“..Sad to say, I am beginning to think that TIG has blown its chance.,,They ducked the opportunity to do a policy declaration a la Limehouse, because both Tory and Labour defectors wanted to cling to the belief that “they didn’t leave their party, it left them”, which obviously doesn’t compute. So there was no call to arms for people looking for a new approach to politics.

They oversold the prospect of getting a steady flow of recruits. Even on political reform only Chuka has tried to set out a comprehensive agenda, leaving doubts as to what their MPs really think about PR or Lords reform. Their social media performance has been somewhat lame. Their choice of name doesn’t really work and their very poor logo wasn’t accepted by the EC. They gave a cold shoulder to the LibDems and don’t really seem to understand what it means to be a third party in our political system.

Now it looks like they could become merely a vehicle for former MPs who lost their seats and former MEPs rejected by the main parties to try and resurrect their careers. Candidates chosen and ordered into a list by an opaque interview process, because they don’t yet have any formal membership structure. An end point a very long way from the change they initially promised. Indeed aside from Chuka’s political reform speech and some stirring opposition to Brexit from Soubry and Leslie, it isn’t clear what they actually offer, and it certainly doesn’t appear to include very much ‘change’.

The sadness is that if they fail, it will close off the chance for others to do a better job. Leaving Farage as the only chance of ‘breaking the mould’ – and he is surely likely to lose interest once Brexit is out the way, whatever he says now about his longer term objective.”

To my mind the things that the new grouping got most wrong was its approach to the discussions with the Liberal Democrats. They seemed to start from the point that they were in a much more powerful position then they actually were.

Mike Smithson


With the first LE2018 postal votes being cast the signs are not good for the Tories

April 20th, 2019

The first of next month’s two electoral challenges for the Tories

While everybody seems to be getting excited about the May 23rd Euro elections there has been little focus on the big hurdle that the Tories have to surmount three weeks before that. These are the local elections in England which cover almost all of the country excluding London and just one or two counties.

Each year during a four years cycle a different set of local elections takes place and it is a particular challenge for the Tories at this difficult time that the group of council elections up on May 2nd are the ones where the party traditionally does very well.  Indeed back in 2015, when, most  were last fought, the Tories won more than 4000 which was in excess of half the overall number of contests.

Four years ago, of course, was on the day of GE2015  when the Tories did far better than had been predicted and secured a Commons majority.  This success was seen in the locals as well so it was always going to be the case even without the Brexit turmoil that May 2nd 2019 was going to be hard because there are so many seats to defend.

In his annual media presentation on the coming local elections the week before last the Tory elections analyst, Lord Hayward, observed that the one thing that could help his party between then and the May 2nd election day was the Brexit deal being approved. For there’s little doubt that the events of the past months have made life on the doorstep for Tory campaigners quite challenging and there’ll be a sense of relief once Brexit is settled. Alas that is not going to happen.

Reports from the ground suggest that the Tory vote is weak. It is not that there will be much switching to other parties but a concern that traditional CON voters simply won’t turnout. The thing about local elections is that turnout is everything. The national average is in the mid 30s which puts a premium on local parties ability to get their vote out.

This was a PB comment yesterday from ex-LAB MP, Nick Palmer on his experience:

Interesting 3 hours on the doorstep this afternoon (and no, people don’t mind being canvassed at Easter) in deepest Surrey. I think the Lib Dems are going to do well – I’m used to their voters showing up as don’t knows till the last minute, but there’s some definite enthusiasm out there. Labour’s core vote seems solid but not especially enthusiastic – it’s mostly about fighting the Tories. The Tory vote is crumbling at the edges – unusual number of former Tory voters going out of their way to say they wouldn’t ever vote Labour but definitely not Tory any more either – even met some Brexiteers voting LibDem ias an anti-big party protest. But the Tories too have a core vote which is loyal – I don’t expect a real metldown.”

All of this fits with the reports I have been getting and it is possible that the number of Tory losses could be in the hundreds which will reinforce the negative narrative for the party in the lead up to May 23rd.

Normally by this stage before the May locals we have had projections on likely party gain and losses based on what’s been happening in local by-elections. In the past these have set expectations but I don’t think we will be seeing numbers this year.

My guess is that the Lib Dems will do better than at any set of local elections since going into coalition with the Tories in May 2010. They should make a significant increase in their councillor numbers and that will be the backcloth for Vince Cable to announce his resignation as leader thus triggering off a leadership contest.

Mike Smithson


Brexit is Ulsterising British politics

April 20th, 2019

One issue has become so important as to define the entire system

Most people would regard the Good Friday Agreement as a Very Good Thing. Certainly, it was so at the time and 21 years later, that broadly remains so. Despite the continuing background presence of dissident political violence – sadly this week coming into the foreground – the Agreement brought peace and an agreed political structure to the province.

As with much else in Irish politics, the GFA has generated a good deal of myth-making, to the extent that the Agreement is now more conceptual than written; more founded on belief than law. We know that because, for example, the debates over the UK-RoI land border never reference the actual clauses a hard border is claimed to break. The breach is not so much in the text as in what the text represents.

In truth, the Northern Ireland structures and processes that came out of the GFA have never worked particularly well, needed to be re-written and are currently in abeyance: inconvenient facts ignored by those who want to believe in its abiding Goodness, for want of anything better. Turning a blind eye is an essential skill in N Irish politics, and sometimes one that brings a public benefit too.

However, at the heart of those processes is an insuperable barrier to long-term normalisation: the Assembly is built on the concepts of unionist and nationalist communities. Given that the political parties are themselves built on unionist and nationalist programmes, that might seem sensible but the effect is to ensure that that division acquires a reinforcing dynamic and makes any long-term normalisation even more difficult. The GFA does not seek to create one nation; it seeks to manage the relations between two.

As such, a voter more concerned about school standards, economic growth, provision of libraries and parks, or public freedoms has to filter what would usually be social and economic left/right debates through the unnatural prism of unionism/nationalism. If you want to vote Conservative, you might be able to but it won’t get you anywhere; if you want to vote Labour or Lib Dem, you can’t do that at all: you have to vote for ‘sister parties’, which in essence means having to sign up to, respectively, a nationalist or overtly non-aligned agenda. Note that the Alliance Party, while nominally eschewing Northern Ireland’s divisions, still ends up being bound and defined by them.

One unfortunate aspect of Brexit (of many) is an Ulsterising of Britain’s politics at large, in two ways.

The first, and more immediately obvious, is the prominence of the RoI-NI border within the arguments over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which has brought the issues in and around Northern Ireland back to the top of the agenda for both government and parliament. This is, of course, compounded by the Con-DUP Confidence and Supply deal and the mathematics within the Commons. British politics is dominated by Brexit (albeit that both are on a necessary, if hardly well-earned, holiday at the moment), and Ireland is central to Brexit.

There is another way in which Britain’s politics is Ulsterising though: public political identity is more attuned to Brexit than to the traditional political parties, and those parties – and the voters backing them – are realigning to reflect that fact.

The Conservative Party is transforming into the Leave Party. That it’s failed to deliver any form of Leave (other than an unratified Agreement no-one much likes and many hate) is at the core of the Tories’ collapse in support over the last 4-6 weeks and what are likely to be May election results that come in somewhere between very poor and disastrous. FPTP will help protect the Tories to some degree in Westminster elections but not in the Euros. The probability is that Theresa May will step down or be forced out this summer and will be replaced by a hard Leaver. It’s possible that such a candidate won’t always have been a hard Leaver but if not, ERG MPs and party members will demand assurances in blood of their conversion to the cause.

As an aside, I’d think about backing the Brexit Party candidate to win any Peterborough by-election at anything over 3/1, given the likely timing of that election, the likely result of the EP elections, and that public realignment.

By contrast, Labour is transforming into a Remain party. Jeremy Corbyn might not be very happy about that but it’s happening all the same and Conference will be difficult for him on this point unless he’s either accepted the need to go along with members or unless he’s greatly enhanced his authority in the interim.

Corbyn, unlike May and her successor, does at least have the advantage that the challenger Remain-Revoke parties are not very good at politics. TIG, or Change, or whatever have completely missed the open goal in making the public case, while rebel Labour and Tory MPs led the parliamentary battle. The Lib Dems are even further out of the game – when did anyone last hear from any of them on or in the media? By contrast, Nigel Farage has once again captured the attention and support of his target audience.

However, Corbyn won’t be around for ever, even if he wins an election and becomes PM. He’s 70 next month and one of the last relics of first-generation Bennism and the Euroscepticism that came with it. His successor will be (and will have to be) far more openly pro-EU.

Sometimes slowly, sometimes much more rapidly, the party system has realigned from class and social/economic policy preferences to Brexit identity. For those primarily interested in domestic policy, this presents the same problems facing the public in Ulster: domestic policies come as part-and-parcel of the overall package but very much secondary. This is going to leave a lot of voters homeless and struggling to find someone to support, whether they be traditional floating voters or those who were previously aligned but have seen their former party unwelcomingly transformed.

For now though, politics is Brexit, and Brexit is Ireland, and politics is Ulsterised.

David Herdson


On this day exactly two years ago it was Peak Theresa May (and Nick Timothy)

April 19th, 2019

On the betting markets it was a 92% chance that the Tories would win a majority. It got even tighter than that – on the weekend after Tory performance in that year’s local elections the betting chance of the CON majority hit 97%.

Then there was:

The launch of the Tory manifesto (written by Mr. Timothy and not even approved by the cabinet) on May 18th 2017…

Mrs. May’s refusal to take part in a TV debate with Corbyn.

The Dimbleby QuestionTime Special when a nurse whose pay had stood still for eight years was told by the PM “There is no magic money tree”

The exit poll.

Mike Smithson


Biden drops 15 in new Democrat primary poll as Mayor Pete moves to within 4%

April 19th, 2019

The former VP seems to be most affected by the rise of Buttigieg

In the first democratic primary polls carried out since last weekend when Mayor Pete enters the race formally at a big rally in his home city there’s a new national poll that has good news for him and bad news for Joe Biden, the former vice president, who has yet to declare.

Biden is still in the lead – just. When the pollster Change Research last looked at this in March Biden was on 36% and Buttigie was on just two. Now Biden is down to 21 with Buttigieg up to 17.

In a separate question asking people how they’d vote listing only those who had formally declared Sanders was on 26% with Buttigieg on 21% O’Rourke on 14, and both Harris and Warren on 10%

That the rise in the Buttigieg share should be the same as the decline in the Biden share is very telling and perhaps reflects the media coverage of the race that’s been taking place this week. Maybe things will change for Biden when he formally declares that he’s running but I wonder whether the polling might cause him to ponder.

The other big event in the race this was the appearance of Bernie Sanders at a Fox News Town Hall when he which has been very much a major victory for him. Clearly Fox News is not home territory for Sanders and they weren’t going to give him an easy time. As it turned out the Senator from Vermont didn’t give the network an easy time. See some extracts here.

The latest nomination betting has Sanders on 21%, Harris on 17% and Buttigieg on 14%.

Mike Smithson


Next week could see Bercexit if some Tory Leavers have their way

April 18th, 2019

Tory Leavers might be about to make the same mistake with Bercow that they made with Mrs May last December.

In today’s Times there’s this story

Conservative MPs are to launch a further attempt to prise John Bercow from office amid anger over what they claim is the Speaker’s bias against Brexit.

The backbencher behind the move, who says it has support from the government front bench, warned Mr Bercow yesterday that “enough is enough”.

There have been reports that the Speaker wants to stay in his post beyond the summer if Brexit is not resolved. Crispin Blunt, former chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, is canvassing support among MPs for an early day motion expressing no confidence in Mr Bercow. 

He hopes to table the motion when parliament returns on Tuesday, after the Easter recess. This would not in itself force the Speaker out, but it could embarrass him, especially if it were signed by a large number of MPs. Mr Blunt is hoping to garner sufficient support to make Mr Bercow’s position untenable.

Brexiteers and senior ministers believe that the Speaker is using his position to frustrate attempts to get the prime minister’s Brexit deal through parliament….

…Mr Blunt has written to all Conservative MPs telling them that he will only table the motion if it is supported by a minimum of 100 of the 650 MPs. In his letter Mr Blunt said: “I have support from frontbenchers and expect this to be seen as a house matter.”

I think is a further example of some Leavers focussing on the wrong things and making another huge mistake. Let us assume Bercow is ousted soon, who will replace him?

We’re consistently told by many Leavers that the Commons is dominated Remainers, so it is likely the next Speaker will likely to be someone who backed Remain so we might see another Speaker who is perceived to anti Brexit.

Rather than belittle Bercow on Brexit Crispin Blunt and others really wanted to oust Bercow they might be better off focussing on the bullying allegations swirling around Bercow. Last December the Leavers tried to oust Mrs May as Tory leader and only left her stronger for a year, they could repeat that mistake with Bercow, once again they won’t have the numbers to oust their target.

A few bookies have markets up on who will be Bercow’s successor as Speaker but as far as I can see there’s no markets up on Bercow’s exit date or will Bercow be Speaker on a certain date.

The latter markets have been profitable in the past as critics of Bercow have been all heat and no light. As for the betting on who will be Bercow’s successor I’m quite content with my position on backing Lindsay Hoyle and Harriet Harman.



UK Euro elections have been no guide to what will happen at the next general election

April 18th, 2019

Even under Blair LAB never “won” a Euro election

While everybody is getting over excited at the moment about the prospect of the May 23rd Euro elections we should remind ourselves and how they have been totally non indicative of what’s going to happen at the following general election

Back in 1999, the first General Election after Tony Blair’s landslide, William Hague’s Tories came out as the top party with 33.5% of the vote 7 points ahead of Labour. Two years later at the 2001 general election Tony Blair’s party achieved another landslide which was only a couple of seats off what he had achieved 4 years earlier. Hague had been somewhat misled by the Tory success in the 1999 Euros that he focused almost his whole GE2001 campaign on the issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU. It did him no good.

For the 2004 Euros Blair went to great lengths to try to boost his party. All postal voting took place in several regions in the hope this would boost turnout. On the day the Tories led then by Michael Howard achieved a victory in the Euro elections with a similar sort of margin to William hague’s five years earlier. The following year Tony Blair went on to win a solid working Commons majority that would sustain LAB for 5 years.

In 2009 the Tories topped the aggregate vote total on 25.9% with UKIP on 16%. LAB slipped to third place. A year later at GE2010 UKIP didn’t pick up a single seat.

In 2014 Farage’s UKIP came out top with 27% of the vote winning most MEPs. This was, of course, no indicator to what would happen at GE2015 when the party just picked up one seat – Douglas Carswell’s and losing the other one it held. Carswell later quit UKIP.

This is all down, I’d argue, to two factors – the closed list voting system and voters not really believing that their ballot has an impact like at a general election. The last three UK Euro elections have been held simultaneously with the local elections thus probably boosting turnout. That will not happen on May 23rd because this year’s locals take place a fortnight today.

Mike Smithson