Parliamentary by-elections get four weeks shorter – and why it matters

The average length of Parliamentary by-election campaign has shrunk by four weeks since the 1970s, sharply narrowing the chance for the public to find out about candidates presented to them and stifling openness in the candidate selection processes which frequently now have to be run at break-neck pace.

The legal timetable for a Parliamentary by-election between moving of writ and polling day has some scope for variation, but essentially is three weeks. However, there is no fixed time between a seat falling vacant, e.g. due to an MP dying or stepping down, and the writ being moved.

In the 1974-79 Parliament, on average there were 54 days between the vacancy and the writ being moved in by-elections in Great Britain. The 1992-97 Parliament had a series of unusually long gaps between vacancy and writ, driving its average up to 57 days. Since 1997 the figures have consistently been under 30 days. In the current Parliament that has fallen to just 26 days.*

Taking into account the rest of the timetable, this means the length of Parliament by-election campaigns has fallen by approximately 40% since the 1970s or the 1990s peak. If you are familiar with the intense pace of developments and shifts of public opinion during by-elections, you’ll know just what a big difference four weeks makes to a  campaign.

In reality, by-election campaigns for many voters have fallen even further because of the sharp increase in postal voting, which results in people voting before polling day.

Had a legislative change been proposed that would have brought about a similar cut in the length of Parliamentary by-elections, it would have been hugely controversial because shorter campaigns mean less time for candidates to put their cases and less chance for the public to hear from candidates. It also makes it harder for new people to break in as plausible candidates.

At a time when nominally all parts of the electoral system are deeply concerned with increasing public interest and involvement in our elections, slashing the length of election campaigns runs in completely the opposite direction.

I understand the situation of those who decide to move the writ increasingly quickly, whichever party they are from. They are working fully within the law and, given the law gives them discretion to choose when to move the writ, choosing the date that best suits your own party is understandable. I’ve given advice on this basis myself in the past, particularly for local by-elections.

But there comes a point where everyone should take a step back and ask whether it’s right that the rules are written this way. Parliamentary by-elections are now in practice far too short to offer much meaningful choice between individuals. If you think politics should just be about choosing between parties, then that doesn’t matter. But if you think the individual merits of candidates matter, then the huge cut in the length of Parliamentary by-elections is a real problem.

* Average number of days between date of vacancy and issue of writ: 1947-79 54 days, 1979-83 47 days, 1983-87 37 days, 1987-92 45 days, 1992-1997 57 days, 1997-2001 29 days, 2001-05 26 days, 2005-present 26 days. Source: calculated from data from the House of Commons Library.


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