The Parliamentary By-elections Spring-Summer 2021: what do they tell us about British politics today?

Over the ten weeks between May 6th and July 1st four Westminster Parliamentary by-elections[1] were held in the UK. These were for the constituencies of:

  • Hartlepool in the North-East of England (Conservative gain from Labour)
  • Airdrie and Shotts in the Scottish Central Belt region, between Glasgow and Edinburgh (SNP hold)
  • Chesham and Amersham in the Buckinghamshire commuter belt in the South-East of England (Liberal-Democrat gain from Conservatives)
  • Batley and Spen in Yorkshire, in the North of England (Labour hold)

In a series of posts this week I’m going to consider what these results may tell us about the state of play in British politics as we approach what could be the mid-point of this parliament[2]. I’m going to aim to place these four elections in a wider historical context. I’ll begin today with some historical reflections on the role of by-elections themselves in British political life.

Part 1: The By-election and British Political Culture

The rise of the modern Westminster by-election as a political event in its own right, perhaps begins with the Orpington by-election in 1962. The Liberal victory over the Conservatives became part of the story of the Macmillan Government’s steady decline towards defeat by Labour in 1964. Thus, since the 1960s the By-election has evolved into a fixture of British political life, and how the media understands and covers party politics in the UK. 

Shirley Williams’ victory for the newly formed SDP[3]in Corby in 1981, Rosie Barnes in 1987 taking Greenwich for the Liberal-SDP alliance, and Jim Sillars’ capture of Glasgow Govan in 1988 for the SNP, are just three by-election moments I remember from my childhood in 1980s Britain. Spectacular by-election triumphs became fabled moments in the political narrative of the UK. Governments/establishment parties losing by-elections paradoxically became both a natural symptom of mid-term disillusionment, and a potential omen of defeat at a general election to come. 

However, in many cases by-election triumphs were reversed at the subsequent general election. There never was a Liberal-SDP Alliance government, and after Govan it took almost another twenty years for the SNP to become the dominant party in Scotland. Indeed, today the increasing prominence of the three devolved governments, the London mayoralty, and the metro-mayors means by-elections have perhaps lost some of their narrative power. So, are by-elections just political side shows? 

Well, my answer is of course no. By-elections can give us a preview of seismic shifts in British politics before they happen. The Conservative and Labour general election defeats of 1997 and 2010 were foretold by a run of by-election defeats. By-election failure can increase the pressure on party leaderships while victories can strengthen their position and galvanise support. By-elections are about national governance not regional or local affairs. A by-election cynic might argue that the national opinion polls can tell us this, and create similar challenges and opportunities. However, by-elections are about real votes. They are not the projected shares of a hypothetical general election; abstracted from a sample of the UK electorate. By-elections are democracy in action with the electorate choosing a fellow citizen to represent them. Therefore, reflecting on recent by-elections is both contributing to the British political narrative, and perhaps part of our civic responsibility. I also hope you’ll find thinking about by-elections over the next week interesting!

Tomorrow: the Hartlepool, and Airdrie and Shotts by-elections: a story of two governing parties building on previous success? 

[1]A by-election is an election to choose an MP for a single seat outside a general election. They occur when a sitting MP either resigns, is recalled, or dies in office.

[2]Should this government decide on a four-year term and call an election in autumn 2023

[3]SDP = The Social Democrat Party formed by a breakaway group of centrist Labour MPs in 1981 and lead by a quartet of former cabinet ministers: Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. They were disillusioned by the turn to the left the Labour party took after its 1979 defeat. The party would later form an electoral alliance with the Liberal party, and then merge with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrat Party we have today.