Study Notes


AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

BY-ELECTIONS are elections held in particular constituencies in-between General elections. They fill vacancies left by the death or resignation of an MP, although recently by-elections happened after defections of two Conservative MPs to UKIP.

They are very unlikely to change the government, but they are eagerly sought as indicators of public opinion.There are a number of differences between By-elections and General Elections:

Protest Votes - Voters know that their decision is unlikely to change the government.They can safely protest against the party in power by voting for a party that they probably wouldn’t support in a General Election.This is particularly likely in the mid-term of a government. An example is Labour’s loss of Crewe and Nantwich, in which it had a massive majority, to the Conservatives on an 18% swing in 2008.

More tactical voting - Voters might vote for their second favourite candidate. They may do this if they know that their favourite candidate is likely to lose, and they are keen to spoil the chances of another candidate. For instance, a Labour voter in a safe Conservative seat might vote LD if the Labour candidate has little chance. The national publicity which a By-Election gets means that they are better able to make a judgement.

Lower turnouts - Turnouts are usually around 65% or less, as opposed to 75% in General Elections, e.g. Henley: 50%, Glasgow East: 42%.

The lack of a sitting MP (incumbent)- By definition a By-Election does not have one (unless, like David Davis in 2006 on a civil liberties issue and Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless after defection to UKIP in 2014, they have put themselves up for one). Incumbents in a general election usually have an advantage, being better known than most other candidates.

Local conditions - Local issues or events can also be important. How the election arose, for instance. The death of a popular MP sometimes evokes a sympathy vote, while the resignation of an MP for misconduct might have the reverse effect. In 2008 Labour retained the Glenrothes seat because the local SNP council was unpopular.

For all these reasons, By-elections are an unreliable guide to General Election prospects. Governments often lose By-elections and still recover by the time of the next election.

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