Election campaign

The fate of tiny parties in the Commons: history’s brutal lesson

There are currently 12 political parties represented in the House of Commons. Come the election, this number could fall to 10. There’s a chance that both the Alliance party of Northern Ireland and Respect could lose their sole MPs: respectively, Naomi Long and George Galloway.

Long has a majority of 1,533 in the seat of Belfast East, which she won in 2010 from DUP leader Peter Robinson. The DUP needs a swing of 2.2% to win it back.

Galloway won Bradford West from Labour at a by-election in 2012 on a mighty swing of 36.6%. Labour needs a swing of 15.5% to take it back, but has struggled to find a candidate.

Were both Long and Galloway to lose, it would continue a rather brutal tradition in parliament for small parties to be entirely wiped out at elections.

The most recent example is the party latterly known as Independent Community and Health Concern, which held the seat of Wyre Forest from 2001-2010 in the shape of Dr Richard Taylor. First standing as the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern candidate, Taylor’s victories in 2001 and 2005 were helped by the Lib Dems choosing not to field a candidate against him – a policy they discontinued at the 2010 election, when Taylor was duly defeated in by the Conservative Mark Garnier,

We have to go a bit further back in history for the next example. The Communist Party of Great Britain had a small but recurring presence in the Commons during the early part of the 20th century, peaking in 1945 when they managed to return two MPs: Willie Gallacher for West Fife and Phil Piratin for Mile End. Both lost their seats in 1950, however, and the CPGB never made it back into parliament.

The left-leaning Common Wealth party managed to win a few by-elections during the second world war, but only one seat at a general election: Chelmsford, which was held by Ernest Millington in 1945. A year later Millington defected to Labour, and the party never graced the Commons again.

Edwin Scrymgeour remains the only person ever elected to parliament on a prohibitionist ticket. He held the seat of Dundee as a member of the Scottish Prohibition Party from 1922 to 1931.

George Maitland Lloyd Davies was elected the Independent Christian Pacifist MP for the University of Wales in 1923, but lost the seat one year later to the Liberals.

The National Party was formed almost 100 years ago in 1917 as a right-wing split from the Conservatives. It won two seats at the 1918 general election, but in both instances these were former Tory MPs who had recently defected: Sir Henry Page-Croft in Bournemouth and Sir Richard Cooper in Walsall. The party was disbanded in 1921.

There have been other cases of MPs resigning their party mid-parliament and either rebranding themselves or forcing a by-election in the guise of a new moniker. A good example is Dick Taverne, who resigned from Labour in 1973 and prompted a by-election in his seat of Lincoln, which he won under the title of Independent Democratic Labour. Taverne held the seat at the February 1974 election but lost it at the October 1974 election. He later joined the SDP.

We’ve also seen a sprinkling of so-called Independent Conservative and Independent Labour MPs, who’ve often fallen out with colleagues but don’t want to form brand new parties.

But the political career of all these individuals tends to be short and relies almost solely on local support.

The one near-constant throughout the past 100 years has been the presence in the Commons of non-aligned, non-affiliated independents. These come in two types.

One is the independent MP who has been elected as such, and we’ve got one of those in the Commons at the moment: Lady Sylvia Hermon, elected as the independent MP for North Down in 2010, who’ll almost certainly hold her seat at the 2015 election.   

Then there is the handful of MPs who have been expelled, resigned or had the whip withdrawn by their party. By my count there are currently four: ex-Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock; ex-Labour MP Eric Joyce; and as of last week the former Tory MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind and former Labour MP Jack Straw.

Our parliamentary system makes plenty of room for MPs to fall into this category. What it doesn’t do very well is nurture entire parties that consist of maybe just one or two MPs. As long as we continue with a first-past-the-post system for elections, I suspect the likes of Independent Community and Health Concern or the Scottish Prohibition Party will be the exception, not the rule.


2 responses to ‘The fate of tiny parties in the Commons: history’s brutal lesson

  1. Ernest Millington was, in fact, originally elected at a by-election – in April 1945 – and held the seat at the general election later that year, when Labour didn’t contest the seat.

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