Thursday, June 12, 2008

I am seriously impressed with David Davis

I turned on the television to see the news that David Davis is resigning to fight a by-election on the issue of 42 days detention. (BBC News: David Davis resigns from Commons) This is one of the most impressive moves I've seen in politics in a long time.

I've been searching my memory (and a very good book co-edited by my supervisor) for previous cases where MPs resigned to fight by-elections and the precedents are mixed. Here are all the ones I can find from the last seventy years:

Kinross and Western Perthshire by-election, 1938. This by-election saw the Duchess of Atholl, who had resigned the Conservative whip earlier in the Parliament, resign her seat in protest at the government's European policy. She was unopposed by Labour or the Liberals (after their leadership intervened) but lost the seat to the new Conservative candidate in a two candidate fight.

Not Gravesend by-election, 1955! Sir Richard Acland resigned from the Labour Party and the Commons in protest at the party's support for nuclear defence. He was going to fight as an independent but the 1955 general election overtook events. In a contest against Labour and Conservative candidates the Conservatives gained the seat.

Lincoln by-election, 1973. Dick Taverne had been fighting a battle with militants in his Constituency Labour Party and took it to the wider electorate. In a six candidate contest (although with no Liberal candidate), Taverne won standing as "Democratic Labour".

Mitcham and Morden by-election, 1982, a by-election that a lot of people talked about recently in the run-up to Crewe and Nantwich. Bruce Douglas-Mann changed from Labour to the Social Democratic Party and opted to ask the electorate. The Conservatives gained the seat and people still wonder why defecting MPs always resist calls for by-elections.

The 15 Northern Ireland by-elections, 1986. All fifteen Unionist MPs resigned their seats in protest at the introduction of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. However getting the other parties to contest the seats proved difficult - the SDLP and Sinn Féin only ran in the four seats with a Nationalist majority and although the Alliance and Workers' Party reluctantly stood candidates across another seven seats, in four a paper candidate had to be found. This led to a man changing his name to "Peter Barry", the name of the Irish Foreign Minister, who polled a poor vote. Maybe someone wants to stand against Davis as "Gordon Brown"? The most significant outcome was in the Newry and Armagh by-election where Jim Nicholson lost to the SDLP's Seamus Mallon.

And that's it. I suppose Davis's position is closest to the Northern Irish by-elections although he has made a personal decision whereas the Unionists were making a party decision.

So how will Haltemprice and Howden go? I don't know. But Davis is taking a very strong principled stance on the issue, maybe even making a courageous decision, and that is good for politics in general.

Oh and with the news the Liberal Democrats aren't fielding a candidate means this will be the first by-election without a candidate from one of the three largest UK parties since South Antrim in 2000. For those who want to cry that's Northern Ireland then the next previous was Newham North East (the other side of my home borough) in 1994 when the Liberal Democrats nominated their only local councillor, Alec Kellaway, who defected to Labour during the campaign! (Kellaway appears to have always been a Social Democrat who decided Labour rather than the Lib Dems were his natural home. At the time of the SDP-Liberal merger he had originally joined the David Owen "continuing" Social Democratic Party.) But lest anyone cry foul on that then it was Glasgow Centralin 1980. A Young Liberal thought not standing a candidate was a bad move and so stood as a maverick, but only got 1.7% of the vote.

Now a lot of the history books will have to be rewritten...

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