For those of us who dislike the Tories, and specifically Boris Johnson’s current cabal of rule breakers and liars, the defection of Bury South MP Christian Wakeford to the Labour party is a welcome development. However, for those of us who also value democratic representation, surely the most ‘welcome development’ would be for a by-election to be called in Bury South.
Whatever their current opinion, this situation is unfair for the people of Bury South. It is unfair on them prima facie given they voted for a Conservative MP, yet even if we buy the claim that a likely swing to labour has occurred in the constituency (which cannot be proven without a by-election), it is unfair on these voters who should in that case be represented by a Labour MP, representing Labour values and being chosen by the local Labour party. This could all be solved by a by-election; the people of Bury South would have an MP representing the party that they voted for, whichever party that may be, the local labour party would have a candidate and an MP who they had chosen, and the conservative party would have the chance to fight to retain the seat. The main person who gains from the current situation and loses from a by-election, surely, is Christian Wakeford, for in a hypothetical by-election where does he fit in? He would be unlikely to be Labour’s choice, and he certainly would not be standing for the Conservatives. The best he could do is stand as an independent and lose.
Why should there be a by-election, you may ask? After all, as Rachel Reeves and the Labour Party tell us as they welcome Wakeford, the people of Bury South voted not for the Conservative Party, but for Christian Wakeford himself. It is of course true that the British electoral system acts on the idea that people vote for individuals, not parties, and this explains why there is no automatic by-election for cross-party defections. But one would have to be living in a special kind of fantasy land to deny that Christian Wakeford became the MP for Bury South because of the party he was standing for. Such, to change his political allegiance and keep the seat as if nothing changed is surely to shred before his constituents eyes his own mandate to hold that seat.
Let’s expand on that. Unable to rely on national party politics to win votes, even prominent MP’s like Dominic Grieve and David Gauke were some way off being elected in 2019 as independents, both finishing second in their constituencies though not really challenging for victory. Other still prominent MP’s fared much worse; Mike Gapes ran as an independent in his constituency of Ilford South and finished third with less than 4,000 votes, whilst Labour’s replacement candidate held about a 25,000 majority over the conservative candidate in second place. Partly, this shows that people vote in general elections based on nationwide party politics rather than necessarily whether the individual they vote for has or is going to be good. But the election in 2019, where Wakeford became an MP, was also more polarising, and more party and party leader dominated, than many others in recent years. People more than ever were voting for the party that they wanted in government. Both these points surely prop up the idea that it was the colour of Wakeford’s rosette that played the leading role in his winning of the Bury South seat.
The conservative party is who the people of Bury South voted for, and the legitimate way for them to lose the seat is for the people to clearly vote for a different party through a by-election; the defection that occurred does not have this legitimacy. If defenders of Wakeford and the Labour party are right and the people of Bury South really have changed their minds and want a labour MP, then a by-election would show it. I’m not sure why the Labour party would not support this; it would give them the chance to prove that the government’s support is waning. They could prove that they have the political advantage that the polls show them to have. This would surely put a pressure on Johnson’s government that the defection of one man does not, and it would demonstrate some level of political integrity.