By-Elections and their Interpretation

  • David Butler


In the time of Charles II, when Parliaments had no limit to their duration, by-elections were the prime sources of MP recruitment. When John Wilkes was repeatedly returned by the electors of Middlesex in 1769–70, or when Foxite support was tested at Westminster in 1783, national attention was clearly focused on the verdict of by-elections.1 However, in pre-Reform days there were few constituencies with a broad enough, or free enough, franchise for by-elections to be given much value as pointers to popular opinion. After 1832 the situation began to change (for example, a by-election at Walsall in 1842 seems to have had some significance in the development of the Corn Law struggle), but it was not until the coming of mass politics in the second half of the nineteenth century that by-elections became a frequent source of comment. It was thought, probably incorrectly, that the deceptively favourable outcome of contests at Southwark and Sheffield in February 1880 lured Disraeli into announcing the general election which ended his career.


General Election Labour Party Safe Seat BRITISH Politics Mass Politics 
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  1. 7.
    See D. E. Butler, The Electoral System in Britain since 1918, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1963) pp. 184–6, for a fuller discussion of this point; see also p. 116 below.Google Scholar

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© David Butler 1973

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  • David Butler

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