Bye-bye by-elections? Part 2. MPs who resigned their seats and stood in the ensuing by-election

Bye-bye by-elections? Part 2. MPs who resigned their seats and stood in the ensuing by-election

In Part 1, I discussed 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.

In Part 1, I showed you the trends in both the number of and the reasons for Westminster by-elections over the last 100 years. Now, fast-forwarding to the present, just a couple of months ago, 11 MPs (8 Labour and 3 Tory) resigned from their respective parties to stand as the Change UK grouping (also known as TIG). They did not trigger by-elections. I have been on record on PB as stating that they should resign and trigger by-elections, but I accept that the case for them standing is not clear cut. So the question stands, how many of the 1,019 by-elections (including Newport West) since the 1918 General Election involved MPs resigning and then re-contesting their seats over matters of, shall we say, “conscience”. The answer is: not that many, percentage-wise!

The table shows that over the last 100 years, only 25 MPs have resigned to re-fight their seat either after leaving their party, or over a single-issue about which they felt strongly (2.5%). Note that several other politicians simply left Parliament after resigning, but as they didn’t trigger by-elections, I haven’t included those. Neither have I included two disqualified MPs in the 1920s who stood again with the blessing of their party. In more recent times, we have had two Tory MPs (Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell) leaving their party to join UKIP in 2014 and resigning their seats and winning their by-elections, and another Tory (David Davis) resigning over 42-day detention in 2008 and winning his seat. However, Davis was aided in his endeavours by Labour and the LibDems in that neither party stood against him. Likewise, most (for exceptions, see below) of the Unionists in Northern Ireland faced no serious opposition in 1986.

As the table shows, out of these 25 MPs, most actually won re-election. Only 5 lost their by-elections, including Unionist Jim Nicholson in 1986 and Zac Goldsmith in 2016. But the interesting thing about Zac is that, uniquely, while he lost the by-election standing as an Independent (to the LibDems), he then won back his seat at the subsequent General Election (2017) – and under his old Tory colours to boot!

Two further MPs, Mark Reckless and Enoch Powell, won their by-elections, but were defeated at the subsequent GE (2015 and 1987 respectively). William Jowitt won his by-election in 1929, but didn’t contest the Preston seat at GE1931

Probably the most dramatic instance of resignation/re-contesting was all 15 Unionist MPs in Northern Ireland resigning and re-contesting their seats in 1986 over the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1986, leading to the greatest number of by-elections held on a single day – however, Jim Nicholson lost his Newry & Armagh seat to the SDLP, and while the, shall we say, “colourful” Enoch Powell held on narrowly in South Down, he was defeated the following year at GE1987, also by the SDLP.

The recent emergence of Change UK of course draws parallels with the formation of the SDP in the early 1980s. Bruce Douglas-Mann was the only former Labour MP who defected to the SDP and triggered a by-election in their own seat, namely Mitcham & Morden in 1982. But he lost, to the Tories in fact, due to a split left-wing vote. Angela Rumbold, the victor, actually lost a slight bit of vote-share for the Tories compared with 1979.

Leslie Haden-Guest, who resigned from Labour over the Party’s policy towards intervention in China to trigger a by-election in Southwark North in 1927, ended up in third place behind the official Labour candidate and the Liberal, again a unique situation among the 25 “conscience” MPs.

In 1938, the Tory MP for Kinross & Western Perthshire, Katherine Stewart-Murray (Duchess of Atholl), resigned the whip over Tory policy regarding pre-war appeasement. She lost to the official Tory candidate in the by-election, though there were no other candidates. To date, The Duchess was the only female MP to resign/re-contest.

By contrast, in 1973, Dick Taverne, Labour MP for Lincoln, resigned from the party over Europe, presaging our current fractious political climate, and won his by-election as an Independent (albeit under the “Democratic Labour” tag). He retained the seat at the GE in February 1974, but lost in October the same year. Taverne would eventually join the SDP in the 1980s, and he is currently a LibDem peer.

Two early defectors from Party to X to Party Y who actually won their by-elections were Joseph Kenworthy and William Jowitt, both resigning from the Liberals to join Labour. Kenworthy joined Labour, presumably because Lloyd George wasn’t radical enough, won his Kingston-upon-Hull Central by-election in 1926 and retained his seat at the 1929 General Election, while Jowitt, one of two MPs for multi-seat Preston, defected to Labour after the 1929 election (to become Attorney-General for England & Wales, no less). He won the by-election, but both Preston seats were won by the Tories at the 1931 General Election (though Jowitt didn’t stand).

So, assuming that there isn’t an imminent General Election, can we say that if the 11 Change UK MPs did resign and contest by-elections, do they they stand a statistical chance of re-election? I would stick my neck out and say yes, kind of! The caveat being, of course, that every Westminster seat (and every MP!) is different.

Sunil Prasannan

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