By Matthew Barrett
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As Peter Hoskin noted yesterday, the writs for a number of seats will be moved today, and will bring the number of by-elections in this parliament to 13.
We've just hit half-way through this term, and so one might reasonably assume that there will be at least 20 by-elections by 2015. That would be the highest number since the 1987-92 parliament. Unlike in that parliament, which had by-elections caused by the departure of MPs from all parties, this parliament has seen a strangely one-sided number of by-elections caused by Labour MPs.
Of the 13 by-elections called so far, only one has been caused by a Conservative MP (Corby), and one by Sinn Féin (Belfast West). The other 11 have all been Labour, including five caused by death or ill health, three because of scandals (Denis MacShane, Phil Woolas and Eric Illsley) and another three who resigned to contest higher office outside Parliament (a topic I've covered in more detail before).
Another point of interest is that there is a 14th by-election looming, at some point. In June, Martin "Machine Gun" McGuinness announced he would step down from the House of Commons because the Northern Ireland Assembly decided it would stop "double-jobbing" (sitting as a member of more than one legislative body), which meant Mr McGuinness could either resign as an MP, or give up his job as Deputy First Minister. Naturally he chose to stand down from Parliament – whereas his party colleagues resigned from the Northern Ireland Assembly, because MLAs are simply appointed to fill vacancies, and so do not incur the costs that a by-election does. However, the by-election in Mr McGuinness' Mid Ulster constituency is yet to take place.
This may be because Sinn Féin have the funny idea that simply announcing your intention to resign is sufficient for you no longer to be an MP. However, as Gerry Adams found out earlier last year, the traditional route of being appointed to an "office of profit under the Crown" doesn't get bypassed simply because you represent an abstentionist party. Mr Adams' bizarre dispute over whether or not he was still an MP because he refused to recognise having profited from "the English queen", and so on, has not yet come about in the case of Mr McGuinness, but presumably a by-election writ will be issed when he is quite ready to stand down during this parliament.
And all of this presents an interesting point: it has been observed over the last few months how members of the Government have made occasional kind references to members of the Democratic Unionist Party. It is thought that this is because the DUP's eight MPs might be exactly what is required to form a new government in the event of a very close hung parliament next time around – a far more palatable coalition for many Conservatives.
The DUP are rightly of the view that parties with a policy of absention from Parliament should not be entitled to the same allowances and expenses as MPs who do actually do their job. But if Sinn Féin voluntarily end the practice of double-jobbing, the Conservatives will have less of a bargaining chip if they enter negotiations with the DUP. It would be easy to say "we will remove all parliamentary expenses and allowances from double-jobbing Sinn Féin MPs" – but it is less easy to take the position of removing such funds from absentionist MPs in general, because the principle of, essentially, punishing voters for electing abstentionists is not necessarily a sound one.