By-elections to the House of Commons are exciting. Especially when held in the middle of a parliamentary term, they can shake governments, give rise to novel protests, or reflect local quirks. They can embody all the vitality and magic of democracy, with previously sure winners surprisingly defeated and new, unlikely voices given national platform.
That is, unless your MP was recently murdered in office. Then, by new consensus, the normal business of democracy is suspended.
In February, my constituency of Southend West will hold a by-election to elect a successor to Sir David Amess, who was killed in an apparent terrorist attack in October last year. I normally love elections and enjoy casting my ballot. But this time, I won’t be voting.
Before his murder, Sir David was my MP for all but a few months of my life. I’d volunteered in his office as a schoolboy. I saw him around every so often. He was a constituency MP to his core, and as many of his colleagues and caseworkers attested after his death, he frequently refused to rein in his independence in Parliament in exchange for promotion.
I’ve surveyed the campaign literature of Anna Firth, his designated replacement. A smooth-talking barrister, Firth seems to be on an unofficial Conservative party A List. She was a parliamentary candidate in London’s Erith and Thamesmead in the 2015 general election, and a candidate for Canterbury in 2019, which she lost with a swing to Labour against the national average. She was for much of the last decade a district councillor in Sevenoaks, in Kent.
A loyal party worker then, willing to travel. In her leaflets it seems she has almost nothing to say about local issues. Her top priorities include ‘build[ing] on [Sir David’s] legacy’ and ‘mak[ing] the most of city status’, ‘work[ing] with government to secure investment’ – all of them without substance.
Good candidates from major parties might be able to prompt her to say a little more during the campaign. But here’s the problem – none of them are standing. Due to the circumstances, the election is being vacated by Westminster parties. It’s going to be a coronation.
The major parties are treading on eggshells after the murder of one of their own. They did the same after Jo Cox’s murder in 2016. But an uncontested election after the killing of an MP seems less like a dignified suspending of normal politics – and more like deciding arbitrarily the public won’t bear a contest.
Oddballs are normally drawn to by-elections, and this one is no different. My constituency will soon briefly accommodate the tourists of Jayda Fransen, formerly of Britain First, and Catherine Blaiklock, the founding leader of the Brexit Party, now Reform UK.
You can have some debate between the consensus and the fringe, certainly. But with one candidate anointed by the mainstream, and the rest a bunch of oddities not even expecting to win, how much value can this campaign truly have?
There seems no reason why major parties should leave a by-election, even in as safe a seat as Southend West, uncontested – even for sentimental reasons.
By-elections are sometimes upsets, and they are often bellwethers of public dissent against the government of the day. It is disappointing to allow so synthetic an election to follow the death of so independent-minded an MP as Sir David.
A version of this piece was published in The Telegraph.