By election

What are by elections?

By elections are elections that take place between scheduled elections.

The most famous by elections are those occuring for seats to the House of Commons, but they also occur regularly at local government ward level.

On polling day, parliamentary by elections follow the same procedure as they would in a general election in relation to postal vote rules, polling station voting hours, the electoral register, and the counting of ballot papers.

How many by elections take place during a typical parliament?

Since the 2019 General Election, some 10 MPs from a total of 650 have been elected at a subsequent by election.

The number of by elections occuring each parliament varies depending on circumstances and the length of the parliament in question.

Between the 2017 and 2019 general election, there were just 5 by elections.

Between 2015 and 2017 there were 10 by elections.

Between 2010 and 2015 there were 21 by elections.

Between 2005 and 2020 there were 14 by elections.

What causes by-elections?

An MP’s seat can become vacant between general elections for a number of reasons.

An MP Resigns
Firstly a by-election is cause if an MP resigns.  If an MP steps down before a general election there is a formal process by which the Chancellor of the Exchequer appoints them to the office of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds or of the Manor of Northstead, allowing them to formally resign their responsibilities as an MP.

This procedural device dates from a 1624 Resolution stating that MPs are forbidden from directly resigning their seat.

This was during a historical period in which service as an MP was viewed more as an obligation rather than a coveted profession, meaning that resignations were not encouraged unless absolutely necessary. Prior to the 1500s it was rare for parliamentary sessions to exceed several weeks per year.

Until a new MP is elected the neighbouring MP has responsibility for representing the vacant seat.

An MP dies
On the death of an MP, his or her seat becomes vacant, and a by elections follows.

An MP is declared bankrupt
MPs who are declared bankrupt are not allowed to sit in parliament, and a by election then follows.

An MP is convicted of a serious criminal offence
MPs who are convicted of a serious criminal offence, involving imprisonment of more than a year, are disqualified from Westminster leading to an automatic by election.

An MP accepts a peergage in the House of Lords
MPs who are appointed to the House of Lords cannot continue to serve as an MP.  Prior to the reform of the House of Lords, this used to be a particular issue when an MP suddenly became a hereditary peer after the death of a parent.

An MP is ousted by a recall petition
If a recall petition is signed by 10 per cent of electors in the relevant local constituency, a by election is held.

Recall petitions were introduced in response to the 2010 MPs Expenses Scandal.  They are now possible when an MP had been imprisoned (for however long) and has had all their appeals  exhausted.

Recall petitions are also possible if an MP is suspended from the House of Commons for over 10 days following a recommendation of the Committee of Standards; or if an MP was convicted of making a false Parliamentary allowance claim.

How are by elections called?

When it is decided that a by-election is to take place, the chief whip of the party of the vacant seat‘s MP “moves the Writ”.

This means they submit a motion asking that ” the 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 constituency of …. in the room of…”

The speaker then asks MPs whether they agree to the motion. If they agree to the motion it becomes an Order for the Speaker who henceforth issues a Warrant to Crown’s Clerk who forwards the Writ to the Returning Officer.

The fresh Writ is usually issued within three months of the vacancy. A by-election must take place within 21 and 27 working days from this.

If one is vacant close to a general election it is customary to leave it so, until it can be filled at the coming election. If there are numerous vacant seats by-elections can be scheduled for the same date.

Does the government always lose by-elections?

The government does not always lose by-elections, however voters may behave differently at by-elections to general elections. During by-elections voter turnout is often lower, likely because voters see the vote as less important.

Given the focus on a single constituency, local issues may also loom larger in voters’ considerations. By-elections also often offer an advantage to parties not in government as they can be used as an outlet for “protest votes” ahead of a general election.

Over the last forty years the Liberal Democrat party has regularly won by election seats in the English shires from the Conservative party.

By election results in this parliament

Previous election results occuring in by elections during the current parliament are listed below:

Constituency Date of election Previous MP’s Party Previous MP Winner Winner’s party
Tiverton and Honiton 23 June 2022 Neil Parish Conservative Richard Foord Liberal Democrats
Wakefield 23 June 2022 Imran Ahmad Khan Conservative Simon Lightwood Labour
Birmingham Erdington 3 March 2022 Jack Dromey Labour Paulette Hamilton Labour
Southend West 3 February 2022 David Amess Conservative Anna Firth Conservative
North Shropshire 16 December 2021 Owen Paterson Conservative Helen Morgan Liberal Democrats
Old Bexley and Sidcup 2 December 2021 James Brokenshire Conservative Louie French Conservative
Batley and Spen 1 July 2021 Tracy Brabin Labour Kim Leadbeater Labour
Chesham and Amersham 17 June 2021 Cheryl Gillan Conservative Sarah Green Liberal Democrats
Airdrie and Shotts 13 May 2021 Neil Gray SNP Anum Qaisar SNP
Hartlepool 6 May 2021 Mike Hill Labour Jill Mortimer Conservative