The Bus Law of By-Elections

Portraits by Richard Townshend, 12th January 2020 (CC-BY-3.0)

It has been nearly two years since the last by-election to the UK House of Commons – in Brecon & Radfordshire, where Jane Dodds unseated Chris Davies. This is said to be the longest gap since the end of World War Two, though I suspect you could look a lot further back than that and not find one. It is quite remarkable that over the course of 2020 no MPs died despite several testing positive and one having to be put on a ventilator.*

Things got moving again on 16th March when Mike Hill, facing an employment tribunal, took the Chiltern Hundreds. A by-election for his constituency of Hartlepool is scheduled to take place on 6th May, alongside the many local elections across the country. Already eleven candidates have been put forward. The list is rather fascinating in that three former Labour MPs will be competing against each other for different parties: Paul Williams (Stockton South 2017-19) is still fighting for the red rose but Hilton Dawson (Lancaster & Wyre 1997-2005) is now secretary of the North East Party which seeks a devolved parliament for the region similar to those in Scotland and Wales and Thelma Walker (Colne Valley, 2017-19) has defected to the Northern Independence Party which seeks to revive the ancient kingdom of Northumbria as a democratic socialist republic. The Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer is a farmer and Hambleton (North Yorkshire) District Councillor. Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party) is putting forward businessman John Prescott (not the former Labour MP) and the Liberal Democrats have chosen Andy Hagon, a teacher who also stood there in 2017 and 2019. It has cause some controversy (and mirth) to note that so few of the candidates are actually from Hartlepool. Once the domain of Peter Mandelson, this constituency is part of the so-called “Red Wall” of traditional Labour seats that has swung towards the Conservatives after voting to leave the European Union. You might reasonably think that any seat which stayed red in 2019 couldn’t possibly go blue now, but a recent Survation poll gave the Conservatives a seven-point lead. Obviously it’s too early to call at this stage, but the prospect of the government gaining a seat from the opposition again in just over four years would be seriously humiliating for the latter, although we can hope that on this occasion the prime minister will not be tempted to go for a snap general election as a consequence.

On 23rd March Neil Gray took the Manor of Northstead, vacating the constituency of Airdrie & Shotts in order to contest the same seat for the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood**. In this instance the returning officer has decided that it would be safer not to have the two polls on one day, so instead the by-election will take place a week later on 13th May. The candidate list for this election is not yet as long, nor as amusing. Notable here is that there has not been a Commons by-election in Scotland since Inverclyde in 2011 and never at all where the National Party was defending.

On 4th April Dame Cheryl Gillan died at the age of 68 following “a long illness“. She had been MP for Chesham & Amersham since 1992 and was the twenty-fourth most senior by continuous service. No candidates have yet been announced for this by-election and neither has the writ been moved when the others were. Partly this is because she died when the Commons had already risen for the Easter recess, and partly it is because of the convention to delay political machinations until after the late member’s funeral.

*The other place was less lucky, with Lord Gordon of Strathblane succumbing to COVID on 31st of last March. A few hereditary peers have retired or died of other causes in that time but their by-elections have been repeatedly postponed.

**This is required by the party’s rules, rather than those of either legislature.

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