Resignations to seek re-election at Westminster, 1918-2008 - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

12 June 2008
I fight on, I fight to win. I resign.

In a change to the post we expected to write to-day, here's a brief history of by-elections fought on a point of principle. The proximate cause is David Davis, who has resigned his Haltemprice and Howden seat to protest against the vote to inter people for a month and a half without trial.

The last time anyone resigned from the UK Commons to seek re-election on a point of principle occurred on 17 December 1985, when all fifteen Unionist members - eleven Ulster Unionists, three Democratic Unionists, and one Popular Unionists - resigned their seats to seek a fresh mandate against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; specifically, they were protesting against allowing the government of the 26 counties a consultative voice in aspects of the north's administration, and the fact they weren't heavily involved in the negotiations. With the Unionists not competing against each other, fourteen of the MPs were returned, often with increased majorities; catholic voters in Newry and Armargh coalesced around the SDLP's Seamus Mallon, and gave him an early entry to the Commons.

Before that, we find Bruce Douglas-Mann. He was elected as the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden in 1979, defected to the SDP in December 1981, and sought re-election the following May following local discontent. He faced a Labour candidate, an Independent Liberal, but lost his seat to Angela Rumbold of the Conservatives. She held the seat until 1997, and hers was the last Conservative gain at a by-election until last month.

A close parallel to Mr. Davis, at least geographically, is Dick Taverne in Lincoln. Mr. Taverne had never been particularly liked by his constituency Labour party, and they used his whip-defying support of British membership of the EEC as an excuse to ask him to retire. Mr. Taverne wasn't going to be bossed around like this, and sought a vote of confidence from the electorate: vote for the man, not the party. The Labour party wanted to assert its control over what it saw as its fiefdom, the Conservatives fielded a token candidate, the Liberals declined to stand - much to the disgust of their youth wing's leader, Peter Hain - and three independents spent £150 on some publicity. Mr. Taverne won by a landslide, and set up a Campaign for Social Democracy. He narrowly retained the seat in the February 1974 election, but lost it in the following October's election.

Backwards, backwards, ever backwards, until we find Tony Benn and Malcolm St Clair in Bristol South East. Mr. Benn had been disqualified when he became Viscount Stansgate in 1961, but contested the by-election, and topped the poll. As he was ineligible to stand, the only other candidate, Mr. St Clair, was appointed the division's MP. In 1963, it became possible for hereditary peers to renounce their title. Mr. Benn took advantage of that opportunity, Mr. St Clair resigned his seat and declined to fight the subsequent by-election - indeed, there was no Conservative candidate at this election. Could we argue that Mr. St Clair resigned on a point of principle? He certainly did the honourable thing, but it wasn't in protest against a decision of the government, so we'll move on.

Through the myriad of by-elections in the 1950s, and the wartime parliament, and we eventually alight on the Duchess of Atholl. She represented Kinross and West Perthshire, and was in and out of the Conservative party like no-one's business. Almost inevitably, she fell out with the appeasement policy of Neville Chambermaid in 1938, and sought re-election as an Independent Conservative. She lost the election to William McNair-Snadden.

Reasons for by-elections are not fully researched prior to the 1935 election, but we believe two candidates successfully sought re-election after changing their party allegiance. William Jowitt was one of two members returned by the people of Preston in the 1929 election, as a Liberal. That didn't stop Labour's Clement Attlee from asking him to become Attorney General, on the not entirely unreasonable grounds that there were no decent lawyers in the Labour government. Mr. Jowitt accepted the post, with the proviso that he would seek validation by his electorate. The people of Preston gave him that mandate, but declined to support him in the 1931 election. Mr. Jowitt would go on to become Lord Chancellor under Attlee in the 1945 government.

Two other members - Leslie Haden-Guest (Lab-to-C, Southwark North) and Joseph Kenworthy (L-to-Lab, Kingston-upon-Hull Central) - had earlier sought re-election following a change of party. Mr. Haden-Guest was defeated by the Liberal, Mr. Strauss; the Liberal had been MP from 1918 to 1923, but Mr. Haden-Guest would re-capture the seat in 1929. Mr. Kenworthy was successful in his re-election campaign.

The analysis must stop here, as different rules applied prior to 1918. In particular, ministers newly appointed to the Cabinet were expected to resign their seat, as they were taking an office of profit under the Crown.

This post was revised on the day of publication to correct one error of fact, and for clarity.

Update, 13 June: In comments, Mr. Burke points out the case of Richard Acland. Mr. Acland had been part of the left-wing Common Wealth party during the war, opposed to the truce between the main parties. He had bee elected to Gravesend in a by-election in 1947, but resigned in March 1955 to protest against the official Labour policy. Labour supported the Conservatives's plans to build a hydrogen bomb in the UK, Mr. Acland was amongst those objecting to the policy, but his primary objection appeared to be the proposed expulsion of Nye Bevan over his refusal to toe the party line. Mr. Bevan had no objection to the atomic bomb, but was opposed to a pact in South East Asia, the re-arming of West Germany, and had expressed doubts over NATO's nuclear strategy. During a debate in the Commons, he had criticised Mr. Attlee's leadership qualities; this straw broke the camel's back, and Bevan lost the whip. Mr. Acland's membership of Labour had already been suspended, and he formally resigned a week later. Before the writ for a by-election could be moved, the new Prime Minister, Mr. Eden, pounced on the disarray in the Labour party and called a general election. Mr. Bevan had the whip restored, and Mr. Acland's by-election was subsumed in the bigger picture. The Conservatives took the seat, as they might well have done on the national swing.

Elsewhere, Mr. Whyte discusses George Lansbury, who resigned in 1912 to fight a by-election on the specific question of votes for women. Mr. Whyte also points out that this practice has not happened in Dail Éireann. We should note that it's not happened in the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, nor in the most recent incarnation of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Finally, we should also note the last time a senior Conservative took the political world by surprise when he resigned to seek the approval of his party. Mr Major won the skirmish with his bold step in 1995, but hardly helped his cause in the long run.

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