Is British politics overdue a Westminster by-election?

The recent announcement of a Welsh Assembly by-election date prompts the discussion.

Earlier this week, the BBC reported that a date had been set for the Alyn and Deeside by-election for the Welsh Assembly following the death of Carl Sargeant last month. The vote is due to take place on Tuesday 6th February.

British elections of all kinds usually take place on Thursdays, however, the Alyn and Deeside vote is taking place on the “latest possible date” resultant of the “sensitivities of the circumstances”, according to the BBC.

One could argue that a degree of flexibility should be involved to delay it to the Thursday after as habit is an important determinant of voting, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The seat in question is a safe Labour constituency, and with Labour approaching 50% in recent Welsh-only polls, the election is not going to be a thriller, however, the possibility of a Labour councillor standing as an independent could make things interested, as reported by the BBC.

The announcement of a Welsh Assembly by-election leads to the question: is Westminster overdue its own vote?

Although by-elections are by no means guaranteed as it is perfectly possible for a parliament to run its course without resignations and deaths, the presence of old members, political disagreements and scandals, as well as unforeseen, often tragic events, make such votes a key part of British politics.

In the previous parliament, which lasted just two years there were 10 by-elections, the most significant being Sarah Olney’s Richmond victory over Zac Goldsmith and the Conservatives’ win in Copeland, while there were 21 such votes during the coalition years.

Number of by-election victories each parliament since 1979:

  • 1979-1983 – 20
  • 1983-1987 – 31
  • 1987-1992 – 24
  • 1992-1997 – 18
  • 1997-2001 – 17
  • 2001-2005 - 6
  • 2005-2010 – 14
  • 2010-2015 – 21
  • 2015-2017 – 10

Between 1979 and 2015, there was an average of 19 (18.875) by-elections per parliament, which suggests an average of 3-4 by-elections per year, initially suggesting that we are overdue a by-election.

However, a look at the last two parliaments shows us that the first by-elections of the parliamentary term did not take place until the winter following the spring by-election. They took place respectively in December and January following elections in May whereas it’s only December now following an election in June

A look further back shows other examples of delays. The first by-election after the 1987 election took place in July 1988, and the first one after the 1992 election took place in 1993.

Past evidence indicates that the UK is not overdue a by-election, and the suspension of the whip of five sitting MPs opens the possibility for by-elections in the coming months. Furthermore, the fact that the previous parliament was the shortest since 1974 gave the opportunity for older MPs to step aside and lead to an influx of young MPs, suggesting that fewer MPs are at risk of dying in office this time around.

For some it might feel that the country is overdue a by-election, but history suggests that 2018 is likely to contain at least a handful.

A list of by-elections can be viewed here and here.