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A Quite Interesting election prediction and a new phenomenon: the Single-termers

A Quite Interesting election prediction and a new phenomenon: the Single-termers

🕔18.Jan 2015

The anything but retiring Chris Game from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies reflects on those leaving the Commons, adding to the standard categories of Seniority, Sin, or Stash. 

This year’s General Election, Paul Dale predicts, will be “the most unpredictable for 40 years” . Well, I’m writing this while half-watching the Stephen Fry panel game, QI, and here is one Quite Interesting election prediction. Despite this Parliament running its full five-year term, far fewer MPs will retire than in 2010.

OK, it’s not mind-blowingly interesting; nor, indeed, the rashest of forecasts – not when you recall the 2005-10 Parliament, or, as future historians will aptly know it, the Rotten Parliament.

Rotten to the proverbial core, with even the official scale of the globally humiliating expenses scandal requiring nearly 400 MPs to repay us taxpayers £1.3 million for illegitimate claims for everything from Gordon Brown’s cleaning costs to moat cleaning and duck houses.

Some had offended so blatantly that they were prosecuted or deselected. Many more grudgingly paid up, reciting the mantra about the system being to blame and that they’d done nothing wrong. However, just in case their voters might not fully understand, they stayed in character, grabbed the ludicrously generous retirement offer available – £60,000+ ‘parachute’ payments and final-salary pensions – and ran.

The expenses scandal and its fallout ratcheted up the average 80 retirees per full parliament to a post-war record 149. Unsurprisingly, given the Conservatives’ long-term lead in the polls, two-thirds were Labour MPs, including Birmingham’s three: Clare Short (Ladywood); Lynne Jones, whose Selly Oak constituency was being drastically reshaped; and Siôn Simon (Erdington).

Simon’s decision was perhaps most interesting. First, because his main reason for standing down was the same that prompted the creation of the Chamberlain Files – to campaign for a Birmingham elected mayor. Second, because, first elected in 2001, Simon was the only one of 15 West Midlands retirees in 2010 to have sat in only two parliaments.

Even with our over-sized House of Commons, it still takes most aspirants a fair amount of time, effort, sacrifice and luck to get in. Once there, they tend to stay – for voluntary retirees an average of over 20 years or four full-length parliaments. Siôn Simon’s two terms, therefore, were highly exceptional – at least in 2010.

Most MP retirements fall into one of three groups: Seniority, Sin, or Stash. Seniority is self-explanatory. If you’ve been at Westminster since, say, the early Thatcher years, you’ve made your public service contribution and amply earned your retirement, in the already overcrowded Lords or wherever.

Sin is wider ranging. In 2010 it was expenses, this time sex and violence: sexting pics of one’s ministerial genitalia (Brooks Newmark, Braintree); ‘unwelcome sexual approaches’ to a constituent (Mike Hancock, Portsmouth South); inappropriate relations with a 17-year old girl, plus repeated arrests for drunkenness, assault and ‘altercations’ (Eric Joyce, Falkirk).

Stash too is a reflection of our times. May’s election will see the retirement of a slew of particularly Conservative ex-ministers in their fifties, who sense their frontbench careers are behind them, and hope their ministerial experience will open doors to some lucrative and not too taxing (in every sense) paydays.

This parliament, though, has produced an entirely novel fourth group of ‘S’ retirees: Single-termers. There are 10 so far – all in marginal seats, in which first-term incumbents would generally have at least a slight advantage. All but one retirees are Conservatives, and (though not in the West Midlands) disproportionately Conservative women: one in nine of their 36 new women MPs.

Louise Bagshawe/Mensch, compulsive tweeter and already possibly the best-known Conservative backbencher, was first, announcing after barely two years her resignation from her highly marginal Corby seat, due to the difficulties of balancing the demands of politics with those of her young family.

Her new, and New York-based, husband volunteered that she also reckoned she’d “get killed at the next election” – embarrassingly prophetic, given Labour’s sweeping win in the ensuing by-election with a 12.7% swing where 2% would have sufficed.

Note those stats. Seven of the eight Conservative seats subsequently vacated by single-term retirees would be lost in May with a Conservative-to-Labour swing since 2010 of just 6%, which is precisely what this week’s Poll of Polls is showing, with the two parties neck-and-neck on 33%.

All seven are Labour ‘battleground target seats’ and also the focus of a specific ‘Operation Flight’ campaign by the Blairite pressure group, Progress – “As the incumbent flies off, Progress flies in”.

Here in the West Midlands last weekend the Progressives flew into – in order of increasing marginality – Dudley South, Cannock Chase and North Warwickshire.

Paul Dale touched on the candidates in these and other West Midlands marginals in a General Election Special blog last September. My last few paragraphs, by contrast, will remind us, and their constituents, of the political leadership vacuum – or not – that their departure will leave.

Dudley South MP Chris Kelly was the last and possibly David Cameron’s most infuriating single-termer retirement. He waited until last September; then, almost calculatedly overshadowed by Douglas Carswell’s more dramatic UKIP defection, he confided to his Facebook page that he too would be stepping down.

No specific reason was apparently worth mentioning, although it’s conceivable that his millionaire father’s truck dealership might have had something to do with it.

Cameron’s reaction – apart presumably from some relief that Kelly, though a referendum-demanding Europhobe, would not be joining Carswell and UKIP – is not on record.

Alongside Kelly on the ‘unlikely to be greatly missed’ list is Cannock Chase’s departing Adrian Burley. He did, though, make his mark – providing the uniforms for a Nazi-themed stag party, and tweeting his insightful views of Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony: “leftie, multicultural crap”.

Which brings us to Dan Byles, an immensely more substantial figure and surely a loss to both his ultra-marginal North Warwickshire constituency and to Parliament. His pre-parliamentary career was almost straight out of Boys’ Own: mountaineer, sailor, polar adventurer; army medical service in the Falklands, Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq; plus shared Guinness world records for ocean rowing and arctic trekking – with his mother.

Following which, mere legislating must have seemed pretty humdrum, so Byles set about reforming the Constitution. With the Coalition sulking after having to abandon its Lords reform legislation, he and Lord (David) Steel introduced their own Private Members’ House of Lords Reform Bill. Providing for the first time for elderly Lords to resign and criminally guilty ones to be removed, it received Royal Assent last May: for a single-termer, one more probably unique achievement in a remarkable life.

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