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Fri, 15 January 2021

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By Alice Lilly
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2020 Was Only The Second Year In Modern History When Nobody Was Elected To Parliament

2020 Was Only The Second Year In Modern History When Nobody Was Elected To Parliament
6 min read

The year 2020 was unusual for many reasons, one of which is that it is only the second year in modern history where nobody was elected to Parliament via a general election or a by-election.

There hasn’t exactly been a shortage of elections in recent years. Voters have been dragged to the polls four times in the last decade, while constituents have gone through the rigmarole of a parliamentary by-election 36 times. 

These numbers, however, are nothing compared to the post-war years. Following the 1959 election — which saw Harold Macmillan become Prime Minister and Margaret Thatcher become an MP — there were an exhausting 61 by-elections in just five years.

In fact, nearly every year in the post-war period has seen at least one MP returned to parliament, either via a general election or a by-election. There are just two exceptions: 1998 and 2020.

So, why was 2020 so special? And how have by-elections changed in the years since 1945?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BY-ELECTIONS

Before zooming in on 2020, let’s look at the history of national ballots. Parliamentary elections have, of course, been going on for centuries. But, not every iteration of the House of Commons can be compared to the modern day. 

For example, the Labour Party didn’t become the principal opposition until 1918, Northern Ireland was not formed until 1921, and universal suffrage wasn’t established until 1928. 

These, and a number of electoral anomalies such ministerial by-elections, wartime parliaments, university seats, and huge variations in constituency sizes mean comparisons are best made across the post-war period.

And, what a busy 75 years it has been — the UK has seen 22 general elections in that time, with 503 by-elections slotted inbetween. These mid-Parliament elections are typically triggered when an MP resigns, dies, or becomes ineligible to stand in Parliament.

There have been some unusual cases, however. In the 20th century, four by-elections were held following an assassination, four after a candidate was elected posthumously, five after the MP declared bankruptcy, and once after the member was declared of “unsound mind”. 

But, regardless of the cause, these unscheduled votes have long been an important tool in the electoral process. Sitting governments generally perform poorly in by-elections, and so they offer opposition parties a golden opportunity to make gains.

This is especially true of the Liberal Democrats, who have gained seats via by-elections in every Parliament between 1959 and their entry into coalition in 2010 (with the exception of the eight-month 1974 Parliament). 

The Lib Dems have gained seats via by-elections in every Parliament between 1959 and their entry into coalition in 2010

The importance of these votes, however, has waned in recent years simply because there are less of them. A combination of younger parliamentary candidates, better general life expectancy, and less resignations has meant the number of by-elections triggered has fallen since its post-war peak.

But, one thing that is already changing how by-elections operate is the 2015 Recall of MPs Act, which creates a mechanism that allows constituents to trigger a vote. Before it was brought in, there was no way of removing a sitting MP before a general election unless they resigned, died, were sent to jail for more than a year, or were declared bankrupt. 

Now, a recall petition is automatically triggered if an MP receives a custodial sentence of less than one year, is suspended from the House, or is convicted of providing false or misleading expenses claims. If 10% of eligible voters in their constituency sign, a by-election is called. 

So far, this has been used three times, twice successfully. In 2018, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr narrowly avoided a by-election after just 9.4% of his constituents signed the recall petition. Two successful petitions were used to oust MPs in 2019: one for Labour MP Fiona Onasanya and one for Conservative MP Christopher Davies.

2020 IN REVIEW

So, why were there no elections in 2020? The first possible factor is that 2019 saw the first December election since 1923, meaning MPs didn’t truly begin this Parliament until 2020. Historically, there are usually more by-elections in the year after a general election. There was one by-election in 2015, for example, and seven in 2016. 

And, there have been four general elections since 2010. That’s double the number usually seen in any given decade, giving retiring or disillusioned MPs double the opportunities to stand down. This, combined with the slight skew of the electoral cycle from the 2019 election, may have contributed to our vote-less year. 

Health could also be a factor. The average age of MPs has gradually risen since the 1950s, from 47 years in 1951 to 51 years in 2017. But, average life expectancy has increased by over a decade for both genders in the same period, according to ONS stats, suggesting that MPs can now serve longer, and in better health.

The average age of MPs has gradually risen since the 1950s, from 47 years in 1951 to 51 years in 2017

But, the biggest and most obvious reason was, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. Many local elections were cancelled as the UK entered lockdown. So, if a MPs seat had been declared vacant, it would have likely been pushed back. This eventuality, however, never came to pass. 

There were some very close calls, however. Scottish MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended from the SNP for breaching coronavirus quarantine rules. She resisted calls to resign and the incident was dropped by the police, ruling out the possibility of a recall petition. 

It was also reported that a former minister and Tory MP had been arrested over accusations of rape. But, the investigation was dropped earlier this month and they remain an MP.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN 2021?

2021 may finally bring us a by-election, but it could also break some new records. The current longest gap between by-elections is 581 days, set by the gap between the Ogmore by-election on 14 February 2002 and the Brent East by-election on 18 September 2003. That means the UK only has to last until early March 2021 for a new record to be set.

And, even if there aren’t any new MPs elected to Parliament, there will still be plenty of other elections to keep us occupied. As the UK entered lockdown many local, mayoral and police commissioner elections were postponed. All of these polls have now been rescheduled for 6 May 2021, which some are subbing “Super Thursday”. 

On that day, votes will be cast for: 40 police commissioners; the London Mayor and all 25 members of the Greater London Authority; councillors in 118 English councils; local authority mayors in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford; combined authority mayors in Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley, and West Midlands; and some Parish council elections in some parts of England.
 

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