The ever-shrinking timetable for by-elections set to be expanded

Good news from the Cabinet Office, with its announcement of pre-legislative scrutiny of plans to increase the timetable for general elections and, more significantly, for Parliamentary by-elections:

  • the deadline for parties to nominate candidates should continue to be 6 days after the start of the timetable, so parties will have the same time as now to put forward candidates to stand for election. In practice this will now be 19, rather than 11, days before the date of poll, which will allow administrators to begin printing ballot papers further in advance of polling day;
  • provision should be made for updated versions of the electoral register to be created at an earlier point in the timetable to allow postal votes to be distributed to new registration applicants earlier than is currently possible.

The change is primarily driven by electoral administrators wanting more time to carry out their work, especially the extra work involved now in handling postal votes compared to ten or more years ago.

It is also, however, very good news for the public who have been faced with having fewer and fewer opportunities to find out about candidates and their policies during by-elections as the timetable for them has effectively been cut by four weeks over the years. As I put it in 2009:

Calendar showing the month of MayThe 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 the candidates presented to them and stiffling openness in the candidate selection processes which frequently now have to be run at break-neck pace …

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.

(Incidentally, the proposals also include fixing the problem that can hit Labour/Co-op Party candidates, namely that a candidate jointly nominated by two different parties runs into problems in using one of their emblems on the ballot paper following an Electoral Commission judgement on how the law should be interpreted. Given the media’s past form on this issue, expect fixing a Labour Party difficulty to be mis-reported as part of a secret plot to allow Coalition Government joint candidates. The problem for local council candidates was fixed earlier this year)

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5 Comments

  • David Boothroyd 26th Jul '11 - 12:57pm

    You’ve got it wrong. No recent change has been made to the length of byelection campaigns, save for the addition of an extra day by the Representation of the People Act 1981. What has happened is that there have been several cases where a byelection campaign was started (by the issue of the writ) very soon after the vacancy arose. That is not part of the campaign as the law sees it.

    Presenting that as an “ever-shrinking timetable” of the campaign is a serious distortion of the facts to the extent of being a lie.

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jul '11 - 7:06pm

    I would be rather more impressed if they severely-curtailed the amount of money presently allowed to be spent in by-elections. This might force politicians to spend the extra time actually engaging with electors rather than emptying the contents of their egos over them at great cost.

  • @David Bothroyd it it write that parliamentary by-elections can take place on timetables of little more than three weeks when local council ones have a minimum of 25 working days?

  • David Boothroyd 27th Jul '11 - 2:56pm

    I see Mark Pack can’t defend what he wrote. There is no such thing as an “ever-shrinking timetable for byelections”.

    With respect to local government elections, I think the timetable is too long.

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