A Brief History of By-elections

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David Cameron, formerly the right honourable member for Witney

This morning the proceedings in the chamber of the House of Commons began with the following exchange:

The Right Honourable John Bercow (Speaker of the House and member for Buckingham): Order, order, Dame Rosie Winterton.

The Right Honourable Dame Rosie Winterton (Opposition Chief Whip and member for Doncaster Central): I beg to move that Mr Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the borough constituency of Batley & Spen, in the room of Helen Joanne Cox, deceased.

John Bercow: The question is that I do issue my warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the constituency of Batley & Spen, in the room of Helen Joanne Cox, deceased. As many as are of that opinion will say “Aye”.

Honourable members: Aye!

John Bercow: …of the contrary “No”.

Honourable members: –

John Bercow: The ayes have it, the ayes have it. Order, order, Mr Gavin Williamson.

The Right Honourable Gavin Williamson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and member for South Staffordshire): I beg to move that Mr Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the county constituency of Witney, in the room of the Right Honourable David William Donald Cameron, who since his election has been appointed to the office of Steward & Bailiff of Her Majesty’s manor of Northstead in the county of York.

John Bercow: Thank you. The question is that I do issue my warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the county constituency of Witney, in the room of the Right Honourable David William Donald Cameron, who since his election has been appointed to the office of Steward & Bailiff of Her Majesty’s manor of Northstead in the county of York. As many as are of that opinion will say “Aye”.

Honourable members: Aye!

John Bercow: …of the contrary “No”.

Honourable members: –

John Bercow: I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it.

The above prose records “moving the writ” – the first component of a parliamentary by-election. The House of Commons is elected at large once every few years following the dissolution of its predecessor, with all six hundred and fifty constituencies being contested simultaneously. On occasion, however, an individual seat will be vacated during the course of a parliament, requiring the electoral process to be repeated in that constituency alone so that a new member can represent that constituency in the same legislature (rather than waiting for the whole new parliament to arrive). Sometimes there will be more than one vacancy overlapping, so multiple by-elections will be held simultaneously.

Since the general election of 2015 there have so far been five by-elections (not counting the two just initiated). The first was in Oldham West & Royton, following the death of Michael Meacher. Alongside “Super Thursday” in May there were two more – Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough (for Harry Harpham, who had died in January) and Ogmore (for Huw Irranca-Davies who had resigned to contest the same seat for the National Assembly). That same day saw London elect as its mayor The Right Honourable Sadiq Khan, who promptly vacated the constituency of Tooting. All of these elections were Labour holds.

The most recent pair, however, have a different story. On the day of the Tooting by-election (16th June) there was a shooting attack against Jo Cox MP. She died a few hours later. Campaigning for the EU referendum seven days later was briefly suspended and parliament recalled from its short recess to pay tributes. The timing was unfortunate not just because of its proximity to the referendum but also because of its proximity to the summer recess. By-elections take approximately four weeks between the moving of the writ and the polling day, but for a deceased member the writ is delayed until after the funeral. In Jo Cox’s case this meant there was no time left before the summer and so the election will wind up happening more than four months after the vacancy opened.

Witney is a different story. Its vacancy opened on 12 September when the aforementioned Mr Cameron received his aforementioned appointment. In a bizarre case of the patron becoming the client, he was given the job after writing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer whom he had so recently employed at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, alongside that of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern, is an office of profit under the crown. They are mere sinecures (the manor house collapsed in the 1600s and the hundreds were taken over by other officials still earlier) which have since the mid-eighteenth century been used for the sole purpose of allowing a member of the commons to step down.

In the old kingdom of England the role of parliamentarian was a rather taxing one – pay was only nominal and attendance at Westminster deprived many of life in their constituencies. Many were elected reluctantly or even against their will. It was in this situation that a resolution was passed in 1624 banning members from resigning their seats. Decades later, though, a loophole was created by the Act of Settlement. Being desirous of reducing the influence that royal patronage held over the legislature, parliament enacted an early form of separation of powers – any MP who was appointed to an office of profit under the crown (this term then included ministerial posts) would be disqualified from his seat, but a person was allowed to be elected to the house without vacating such a position which they held already. This began a very long tradition whereby a newly-appointed minister would begin his tenure by immediately fighting a by-election to renew their mandate. As time went on and ministers of the crown became more numerous such elections became a severe nuisance with each cabinet reshuffle demanding multiple writs and a general election which resulted in a change of government would then see the new set of ministers have to contest their constituencies for a second time in rapid succession.

Changes were enacted in 1867 for the shuffling of existing ministers to be exempted. In the First World War there were acts to temporarily suspend the procedure and finally in 1926 the concept was abolished altogether. Sinecures such as the Chiltern Hundreds were the exception, surviving purely as a means of allowing a member to quit in the course of a parliament. To “take the Chiltern Hundreds” is a long-standing euphemism for resignation.

FURTHER READING

Wikipedia:

Resignation from the British House of Commons

The Act of Settlement

Ministerial by-election

Recent By-Elections

Chiltern Hundreds

Manor of Northstead

Parliament:

By-elections

Timetables

 

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