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The year 2020 was unusual for many reasons, one of which is that it is only the second year in modern history where nobody was elected to Parliament via a general election or a by-election.

There hasn’t exactly been a shortage of elections in recent years. Voters have been dragged to the polls four times in the last decade, while constituents have gone through the rigmarole of a parliamentary by-election 36 times. 

These numbers, however, are nothing compared to the post-war years. Following the 1959 election — which saw Harold Macmillan become Prime Minister and Margaret Thatcher become an MP — there were an exhausting 61 by-elections in just five years.

In fact, nearly every year in the post-war period has seen at least one MP returned to parliament, either via a general election or a by-election. There are just two exceptions: 1998 and 2020.

So, why was 2020 so special? And how have by-elections changed in the years since 1945?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BY-ELECTIONS

Before zooming in on 2020, let’s look at the history of national ballots. Parliamentary elections have, of course, been going on for centuries. But, not every iteration of the House of Commons can be compared to the modern day. 

For example, the Labour Party didn’t become the principal opposition until 1918, Northern Ireland was not formed until 1921, and universal suffrage wasn’t established until 1928. 

These, and a number of electoral anomalies such ministerial by-elections, wartime parliaments, university seats, and huge variations in constituency sizes mean comparisons are best made across the post-war period.

And, what a busy 75 years it has been — the UK has seen 22 general elections in that time, with 503 by-elections slotted inbetween. These mid-Parliament elections are typically triggered when an MP resigns, dies, or becomes ineligible to stand in Parliament.

There have been some unusual cases, however. In the 20th century, four by-elections were held following an assassination, four after a candidate was elected posthumously, five after the MP declared bankruptcy, and once after the member was declared of “unsound mind”. 

But, regardless of the cause, these unscheduled votes have long been an important tool in the electoral process. Sitting governments generally perform poorly in by-elections, and so they offer opposition parties a golden opportunity to make gains.

This is especially true of the Liberal Democrats, who have gained seats via by-elections in every Parliament between 1959 and their entry into coalition in 2010 (with the exception of the eight-month 1974 Parliament). 

The Lib Dems have gained seats via by-elections in every Parliament between 1959 and their entry into coalition in 2010

The importance of these votes, however, has waned in recent years simply because there are less of them. A combination of younger parliamentary candidates, better general life expectancy, and less resignations has meant the number of by-elections triggered has fallen since its post-war peak.

But, one thing that is already changing how by-elections operate is the 2015 Recall of MPs Act, which creates a mechanism that allows constituents to trigger a vote. Before it was brought in, there was no way of removing a sitting MP before a general election unless they resigned, died, were sent to jail for more than a year, or were declared bankrupt. 

Now, a recall petition is automatically triggered if an MP receives a custodial sentence of less than one year, is suspended from the House, or is convicted of providing false or misleading expenses claims. If 10% of eligible voters in their constituency sign, a by-election is called. 

So far, this has been used three times, twice successfully. In 2018, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr narrowly avoided a by-election after just 9.4% of his constituents signed the recall petition. Two successful petitions were used to oust MPs in 2019: one for Labour MP Fiona Onasanya and one for Conservative MP Christopher Davies.

2020 IN REVIEW

So, why were there no elections in 2020? The first possible factor is that 2019 saw the first December election since 1923, meaning MPs didn’t truly begin this Parliament until 2020. Historically, there are usually more by-elections in the year after a general election. There was one by-election in 2015, for example, and seven in 2016. 

And, there have been four general elections since 2010. That’s double the number usually seen in any given decade, giving retiring or disillusioned MPs double the opportunities to stand down. This, combined with the slight skew of the electoral cycle from the 2019 election, may have contributed to our vote-less year. 

Health could also be a factor. The average age of MPs has gradually risen since the 1950s, from 47 years in 1951 to 51 years in 2017. But, average life expectancy has increased by over a decade for both genders in the same period, according to ONS stats, suggesting that MPs can now serve longer, and in better health.

The average age of MPs has gradually risen since the 1950s, from 47 years in 1951 to 51 years in 2017

But, the biggest and most obvious reason was, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. Many local elections were cancelled as the UK entered lockdown. So, if a MPs seat had been declared vacant, it would have likely been pushed back. This eventuality, however, never came to pass. 

There were some very close calls, however. Scottish MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended from the SNP for breaching coronavirus quarantine rules. She resisted calls to resign and the incident was dropped by the police, ruling out the possibility of a recall petition. 

It was also reported that a former minister and Tory MP had been arrested over accusations of rape. But, the investigation was dropped earlier this month and they remain an MP.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN 2021?

2021 may finally bring us a by-election, but it could also break some new records. The current longest gap between by-elections is 581 days, set by the gap between the Ogmore by-election on 14 February 2002 and the Brent East by-election on 18 September 2003. That means the UK only has to last until early March 2021 for a new record to be set.

And, even if there aren’t any new MPs elected to Parliament, there will still be plenty of other elections to keep us occupied. As the UK entered lockdown many local, mayoral and police commissioner elections were postponed. All of these polls have now been rescheduled for 6 May 2021, which some are subbing “Super Thursday”. 

On that day, votes will be cast for: 40 police commissioners; the London Mayor and all 25 members of the Greater London Authority; councillors in 118 English councils; local authority mayors in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford; combined authority mayors in Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley, and West Midlands; and some Parish council elections in some parts of England.

 

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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