By-Elections, Put Simply

What are they?

In the UK, general elections are held every five years. At such elections, candidates from various parties stand in 650 seats up and down the country – all 650 seats are contested at the same time. The winning candidate in a seat will serve as MP until the next election, however, if an MP resigns or dies before the next general election, constituents have to elect a new member of parliament. This is a by-election. In this case, candidates from a variety of parties stand for election in that seat with the winner becoming MP for the contested constituency.


  • In the 2010-2015 UK parliament twenty-one by-elections took place. So far in the 2015-2020 parliament, ten have taken place as of February 23rd 2017.
  • By-elections are interesting to observe as voters often act differently to how they would in a general election. By-elections are often used to give the government of the day a good mid-term kicking, but they can also be about specific local issues depending on the circumstances in which the seat’s MP resigned.
  • They also tend to have lower turnouts than in general election. This can be due lack of interest especially if the by-election is a foregone conclusion, or due to seasonal affects (winter turnouts have been noted at being significantly lower than standard general election turnouts) and other reasons. 2016’s Bately and Spen by-election had an exceptionally low turnout of 25.8%. A full list of recent by-election turnouts can be found here.

Notable by-elections of the 20th century

Hamilton 1967 – SNP gain

The Hamilton by-election of 1967 is one notable by-election as the SNP, with Winnie Ewing as their candidate, won a generally unexpected victory, giving them their first MP since 1945. Since then the nationalists have had MPs during each parliamentary term.

Of Ewing’s victory, ex-first minister Alex Salmond once said: “I think we can safely say that woman changed Scottish history.”

Crosby 1981 – SDP gain

Soon after separating from Labour the SDP achieved their first victory in the Crosby by-election. Shirley Williams took the seat from the Conservatives showing that the new party could be a real political force.

The SDP later merged with the Liberal party leading to the formation of the Liberal Democrats, and Shirley Williams now sits in the House of Lords as a Baroness.

Notable by-elections this decade:

Clacton 2014 – UKIP’s Douglas Carswell wins

In 2014 UKIP gained its first elected MP when Conservative MP Douglas Carswell resigned from his seat and called a by-election. Disillusioned with his party, Carswell stood again and won under the UKIP banner with 60% of the vote. As a result UKIP gained its first elected MP, something that resulted in the Conservatives growing even more wary of the UKIP threat.

Carswell went on to retain his seat in the 2015 general election when other prominent UKIP candidates such as Nigel Farage lost out.

Rochester and Strood 2014 – UKIP’s second win

Mark Reckless, a Conservative MP before the by-election, did a Carswell. He resigned his seat, called a by-election and joined UKIP. He replicated Carswell’s Clacton result by winning his seat again (taking UKIP to two MPs), however, he failed to win the seat back in 2015, losing it to the Conservatives.

Reckless is now a member of the Welsh assembly, having won his seat in the 2016 assembly elections.

Richmond Park 2016 – Lib Dems gain from the Conservatives

The Richmond by-election in 2016 was an exciting one in recent times. Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith stood down in protest of a third runway at Heathrow and stood as an independent candidate hoping to use the election as a chance to show the government that his constituents were against Heathrow expansion. However, it was the Liberal Democrats who emerged victorious on the night. They too opposed Heathrow expansion, but shifted the argument to one about the EU following the UK’s decision to leave the union. In Richmond, which strongly backed remain, they used this to their advantage and jumped to victory, giving the party its ninth MP.

Stoke-On-Trent 2017 – a turning point for UKIP?

On Thursday 23rd February residents in Stoke-on-Trent central get to vote for a new MP following Tristram Hunt’s resignation as Labour MP. UKIP (who are standing their new leader Paul Nutall) could be on course to pick up another seat there. Such a result would be a blow to Labour in the north.

Voters are also casting their ballots in the Labour seat of Copeland where the Conservatives came second in 2015.

Your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on by-elections? Who will win the upcoming by-elections?


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