Here is a question to ponder during the winter break in politics. Should the lull be as long as it is? Parliament has a recess of almost three weeks and, by tacit agreement, no elections take place in January. So not only do we enjoy a festive silence from the politicians; for a few precious weeks, no party campaigner has to worry about pounding our streets and shoving leaflets through letter boxes.
Maybe this is right. Millions of voters are surely grateful for the break in news from Westminster. And how many activists really like heading out in the bleak midwinter?
Had it always been thus—a convention made sacred by tradition—then perhaps it might make sense to leave things as they are. But that is not the case. January general election campaigns took place in 1835, 1874, 1906 and 1910. Over that period, only July saw more elections.
In 1918 and 1923, voting was over by mid-December, but the new parliament did not assemble until January, so political intrigue continued over Christmas and the new year.
Indeed, after the election in December 1923, Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister, was forced to resign. The Tories had lost seats but remained comfortably the largest party. Just a few days into 1924, Baldwin’s opponents inside the Conservative party, such as Lord Birkenhead and Austen Chamberlain, started to speak out against him. Baldwin limped on as prime minister when parliament returned on January 8, but in the end he conceded defeat. On January 22 Ramsay MacDonald became Labour’s first prime minister.
Those were the days. Almost a century has now passed since either a general election was held or a new parliament opened in January. (In December 2019, parliament resumed one week after the election, which enabled the Brexit withdrawal agreement to be approved before Christmas.)
The story is a little different with January byelections. They, too, are a thing of the past. There has been only one in Britain in the past half century (in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2011, since you ask). But they were fairly common until the 1950s. Who does not know of the dramatic contest in January 1928, when Labour’s Cecil L’Estrange Malone defeated the Conservatives by 557 votes in Northampton?
And what about the wartime election, on 7th January 1944, when the left-wing Common Wealth party gained Skipton from the Tories? This was the one, you will doubtless recall, that caused the Times to report that local voters showed “gratitude for and honour to Mr Churchill as the nation’s war leader” but “strong dissatisfaction with the government’s domestic record and its preparations for the peace”—a shrewd observation borne out by the Conservatives’ landslide national defeat 18 months later. And surely we can all recite by heart the momentous events of January 1955, when four by-elections were held in the same shivering month.
Altogether 25 January contests were held between 1920 and 1959. And did those feet in ancient time suffer frostbite in the cause of drumming up votes? Did activists’ own countenance divine confront a hostile chariot of fire each time they knocked on a voter’s door?
Or were our forebears hardier than us? Is ours a generation of centrally-heated wimps?
OK: in some ways this is just a bit of fun, as Peter Snow used to say on television when translating byelection results into general election projections. But maybe there is a serious point to ponder. Politicians are not the folk we like or trust most. Most of us are sceptical about their motives. We don’t like the way they spout slogans and duck legitimate questions. A three-week break from them is a blessed relief.
I am not suggesting that a revival of January election campaigns would put this right. Personally, I am happy for parliament to have a three-week recess and for door-knocking not to resume until after crocuses and snowbells have flowered. But it would be far better if voters shared this view, not to get away from the noise and mendacity of routine political life, but because we have reason to respect the people we elect, approve of their contribution to our democracy, and feel that the time they have off around now is well deserved.
Happy new year.
This blog was first published by Prospect