British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 1 - February 2006: The Dunfermline and West Fife Parliamentary By-election

What is a parliamentary by-election?

A parliamentary by-election is called if a casual vacancy arises in the House of Commons because of the death, resignation, or elevation to the House of Lords of an MP between general elections. Parliamentary by-elections cannot normally affect the balance of power in the House of Commons, unless the Government's majority is very small (e.g. Wilson's Labour Government, 1964-6, Wilson's and Callaghan's Governments 1974-9, or Major's Conservative Government 1992-7). Turnout is often appreciably lower than for the same constituency in a General Election. Voting behaviour may be more volatile. Commonly, voters use by-elections to vent their grievances against the government of the day. Sometimes the official opposition is the beneficiary, but the Liberals and their more recent successors, the Liberal Democrats, and sometimes nationalists have sometimes recorded sensational victories. The personalities of party candidates usually count for more than in General Elections, and local issues can be more influential. Tactical voting is often a feature, with media coverage (sometimes involving constituency opinion polls of party standings) enabling voters to plump for the candidate most likely to defeat the governing party candidate.

The Dunfermline and West Fife parliamentary by-election was called following the death of the sitting Labour MP, Rachel Squire, on January 6, 2006. Rachel Squire had a large majority of 11,562 in the 2005 General Election, making this an apparently very safe Labour seat, although she was actually elected on a minority of the total vote (47.4%). The rest of the votes were shared between the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Conservatives and two minor party candidates.

Any by-election is perceived as a test of the standing of the major parties, and party leaders. The Dunfermline and West Fife constituency adjoins that of Gordon Brown, hot favourite to succeed Blair as Labour leader and Prime Minister, and Brown played a prominent part in the by-election campaign. It is also close to the North East Fife constituency held by Menzies Campbell, acting leader as well as a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. He and former leader Charles Kennedy were also to play major roles in the campaign.

The Liberal Democrats had reason to feel nervous about the result, following recent bad publicity associated with the resignation of Kennedy and the scandals associated with the subsequent leadership election (see British Politics: 126, Box 7.6). A Daily Telegraph (January 27) poll had shown their UK-wide support down to 13%. Moreover, as coalition partners with Labour in the government of Scotland, the Liberal Democrats did not seem well placed to pick up support with those disillusioned with the performance of Labour. The SNP, in third place in the constituency in 2005, but close behind the Liberal Democrats (who were a distant second behind Labour), had perhaps greater hopes of causing an upset, as they had sometimes won seats from Labour in by-elections (Hamilton, 1967, Glasgow Govan, 1973 and again in 1988). Although this was an unpromising seat for the Conservatives (only 10% of the vote in 2005), they had some hopes that the ‘Cameron effect’ (see British Politics: 119, Box 7.4) might lead to some recovery of their fortunes in Scotland.

The result was an unpredicted sensational victory for the Liberal Democrats, with a huge swing of over 16% from Labour (for an explanation of swing, see British Politics: 76) on a reduced turnout (47.9% compared to 59.9% at the 2005 General Election). The Labour vote was down from 20,111 to 10,591. Thus nearly half those who had voted for the party in the General Election only nine months earlier either abstained or voted for other parties. The Liberal Democrat vote was up from 8,549 in 2005 to 12,391. Other parties had little to cheer about. The SNP vote was down on 2005 although slightly up as a share of the total vote. The Conservatives lost votes and their share of the vote was marginally down. Of the other parties the Scottish Socialists made no headway, while UKIP was down even on their dismal performance in 2005.

Voting figures for Dunfermline and West Fife (electorate 72, 225) 9 February 2006:
Candidate Party Votes % Change in %
Willie Rennie Liberal Democrats 12,391 35.8 +15.6
Catherine Stihler Labour 10,591 30.6 -16.8
Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party 7,261 21.0 +2.1
Carrie Ruxton Conservative 2,702 7.8 -2.5
John McAllion Scottish Socialist Party 537 1.6 -0.1
George Hargreaves Scottish Christian 411 1.2
Tom Minogue Abolish Forth Bridge Tolls Party 374 1.1
Ian Morland UK Independence Party, Scotland 208 0.6 -0.9
Dick Rogers Common Good 103 0.03
Majority 1,800 5.2
Turnout 34,578 47.9

Interpreting the result

The result was even more of a shock because it was so unexpected. It had been widely assumed that the problems of the Liberal Democrats would rebound against them. The virtually forced resignation of Charles Kennedy after his confession of a drink problem, and the admissions of gay relationships that had led to the withdrawal of one leadership candidate, Mark Oaten, and damaged the campaign of another, Simon Hughes, had involved a stream of bad publicity for the party. In the event, none of this seems to have weighed heavily with the voters of Dunfermline. Indeed, it was suggested that the deposed Charles Kennedy, who had campaigned vigorously for his party, and was still popular in Scotland, had attracted a sympathy vote. Others saw the victory as a boost for leadership candidate, Menzies Campbell, whose rather lack lustre performance as acting leader had earlier attracted some criticism. However, it is also possible that the personality of the leader matters rather less to the Liberal Democrats than the ‘big two’ parties. The Liberal Democrat leader has not yet appeared a plausible candidate to be Prime Minister. Indeed the party has sometimes been seen as an ‘anti-party’ capable of attracting voters disillusioned with the established big two. Moreover, the party has long had a reputation for successfully exploiting local issues (‘pavement politics’) and there were serious local grievances (including steep rises on tolls for Forth Bridge, which had prompted the entry of an independent candidate into the contest). Indeed these local issues were among the excuses offered by Labour spokespersons for their party’s crushing defeat. Yet whatever the explanation the result was a massive boost for the Liberal Democrats when morale was low. The 2005 General Election had shown that the Lib Dems could take seats from Labour as well as the Conservatives, and the Dunfermline result amply confirmed this conclusion, indicating that they could win Labour seats in Scotland (despite their involvement in coalition with Labour in the government of Scotland). Too much should not be read into one by-election, but those who predicted a collapse of Liberal Democrat support following their recent travails have not been vindicated. Multi-party politics seems here to stay.

For Labour the result was dire, the worst of a recent series of poor by-election performances. A Guardian leader (11/2/06) observed ‘Every byelection in a Labour seat is now a potential loss.’ It was particularly bad news for Gordon Brown, the party’s heir apparent, who had played such a prominent role in the campaign. Some concluded that the replacement of Blair by Brown would not improve the party’s fortunes. Indeed, it was said, if Brown could not win in his own backyard, how would he succeed in ‘middle England’. Yet both Labour and Conservative governments have in the past endured sensational by-election defeats, but nevertheless have gone on to win subsequent General Elections, often easily recovering the seats they had so emphatically lost (although the Liberal Democrats have succeeded in keeping some of their by-election gains. In by-elections voters are not choosing a government, and are free to ‘send a message to Number 10’, without fear of ‘letting in’ an opposition that might be distrusted even more. Thus commentators have learned not to read too much into the results of parliamentary by-elections, however sensational they appear at the time. Labour’s overall parliamentary majority is down by two, but that majority remains fairly comfortable by past standards. The damage to party morale is perhaps more significant.

For both the SNP and the Conservatives the result of the by-election was disappointing. The SNP vote had been close to the Lib Dem vote in 2005, and they had some hopes of being the major beneficiaries of disillusion with Labour. The charismatic Alex Salmond had returned to lead the SNP, while the Liberal Democrats were linked with Labour in the Scottish Parliament and Executive. Yet support for the SNP did no more than stay steady, indicating once more the problem they have had in making an impact in post-devolution Scotland. The Conservatives found that the favourable media publicity they had attracted with the election of David Cameron as their leader had seemingly done nothing to restore their fortunes in Scotland. The local elections in May could provide more extensive evidence of the ‘Cameron effect’ on party allegiances.

Other celebrated by-election upsets

1962 Liberal Party overturned a large Conservative majority at Orpington.

1965 Labour lost Leyton* to the Conservatives, halving their slender majority of 4.

1966 Labour lost Camarthen* to Plaid Cymru

1967 Labour lost the safe seat of Hamilton* to the SNP

1968 Labour lost Birmingham Ladywood* to the Liberals

1972 Conservatives lost Sutton and Cheam* to the Liberals

1973 Conservatives lost Ripon* to the Liberals

1977 Labour lost Ashfield* to the Conservatives

1981 Conservatives lost Croyden NW* to the Liberals and Crosby* to the SDP

1982 Conservatives lost Glasgow Hillhead to the SDP (Roy Jenkins)

1983 Labour lost Bermondsey to the Liberals (Simon Hughes)

1986 Conservatives lost Ryedale* to the Liberals

1987 Labour lost Greenwich to the SDP

1988 Labour lost Glasgow Govan* to the SNP

1991 Conservatives lost Ribble Valley* to the Liberal Democrats

1993 Conservatives lost both Newbury and Christchurch* (swing 35%) to the Liberal Democrats

1994 Conservatives lost Eastleigh to the Liberal Democrats

1995 Conservatives lost Perth and Kinross to SNP, Littleborough and Saddleworth to Liberal Democrats, and Dudley West to Labour (swing 25%)

1996 Conservatives lost Staffordshire South East to Labour

*Seats regained by party that had lost them at subsequent General Election. Thus many of the more sensational by-election victories were not held. However, note that most of the by-election defeats suffered by the Conservatives in the 1992 Parliament were not reversed in the subsequent 1997 General Election.

Note that nearly all these seats were lost with large adverse swings by the governing party, with the exception of Labour’s losses to the Liberals in 1983, to the SDP in 1987 and to the SNP in 1988. Note also that most of the more stunning defeats were not inflicted by the main opposition party but by the third party or by nationalists