Defections and party politics: part of the game


The scene at PMQs was spectacular, the opposition benches riotous as Keir Starmer announced the new Labour MP for Bury South. But there was no by-election, as was the case with Owen Paterson’s vacated seat; instead, a tumultuous defection, and one that continues a grand British political tradition.

People who think that this defection is unique or new behaviour reinforce the trope that the public has a short memory for politics. There has been at least one defection in every Parliament since 1966-70, and only twice since 1900 has there failed to be a defection or party allegiance switch.

Some of these are less remarkable, such as Katharine Stewart-Murray’s five defections between Conservative and Independent in the 1935-45 Parliament, or the defections of the eleven MPs who stood as the short-lived Change UK and all lost their seats at the subsequent election. Others, such as the 20 Labour lost to the SDP, still make their mark in the form of the current Liberal Democrats, making the case for a third party in an ostensibly two-party system.

People who think that this defection is unique reinforce the trope that the public has a short memory for politics

Defections are by no means rare, and even less so in the last few years – the 2017-2019 Parliament saw a staggering 89 defections, averaging out at about one every ten days. Granted, some MPs had multiple, but it reflects the instability of Parliament and the uneasy tensions brought to the surface when your party appears weak and an MP can wonder if their interests or the interests of their electorate are better served across the aisle.

For the same Parliament, the number of by-elections was five; only two came about as the result of party affiliation changes (a successful recall of Fiona Onasanya following her suspension from the Labour party and the resignation of Barry McElduff for suspension from Sinn Fein).

So it follows that practically a defection doesn’t often lead to a by-election, but should it? On the one hand, MPs are elected directly as representatives of their local area and are only responsible to their residents – if defecting is more likely to serve their interests, it is arguably defendable. On the other, it is not as if an MP is elected neutrally and then chooses their alignment once they reach Westminster. Voting for an MP is a direct or indirect measure of support for the party they stand with and the person at the top of that party.

A defection doesn’t often lead to a by-election, but should it?

As opposed to the Holyrood system where voters elect for both party and constituency, MPs have the difficult balancing act of standing for both. Maybe given this complexity, mandating by-elections by law as with resignations or recalls isn’t a good idea – even if Christian Wakeford did sponsor such a Bill.

How much does the defection matter in the wider stability of the current government? For the Prime Minister, it is one less letter to the 1922 Committee – but one more member of the 2019 ‘Red Wall’ intake for the Conservatives who are quietly or loudly grumbling in the halls of power. Had Wakeford been part of a fringe group, on the extreme end of either party, the blow might have been dulled a bit – but the worry will be that his reasons for defecting won’t be all that unique.

Lord Adonis commented in discussion of defection that “defections are at their most potent when people say that the views that they hold are better represented by the new party than the last”. Christian Wakeford expressed exactly that in his letter to government whips; scathing about the conduct of Boris Johnson, unequivocally stating that Starmer had shown the integrity and personal characteristics he considered key to his leadership.

Of course, it could all be cynical; Survation polled a 16 point lead for Labour in the seat on 20th January. However, if recent and historical political trends hold out, this won’t be the last defection of this Parliament – and all these questions of morality, responsibility and duty will rise again like the waves. The Prime Minister will have to hope they aren’t lapping too eagerly.

Image: Robert Lamb via Wikimedia Commons

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