Batley and Spen by-election: you don't respect a murdered MP by suspending democracy


“Following the tragic killing of Labour MP Jo Cox, the Conservative Party has decided not to contest the forthcoming by-election as a mark of respect to a much-loved and respected politician,” announced a Conservative spokesperson on 17th June. Former Tory Chairman Grant Shapps had previously tweeted that the murdered MP died “doing her job serving the community she represented for too short a time”, adding: “I hope that in the sad by-election to follow, Jo Cox’s constituency is left uncontested as a tribute to Jo’s extraordinary public service.” The Liberal Democrats and Ukip have joined the Conservative Party to announce they also will not contest the by-election in Batley and Spen.

It feels the right thing to do: it is generous and compassionate. The cry is ‘unity‘: the Prime Minister wants to banish hatred, division and intolerance from our public life. The only way to drive division out of a liberal democracy is to deny the people choice. And so, unchallenged by any of the main parties, Labour will have a free run. O, there will be political minnows, but that is no credible democratic choice at all. Whoever Labour chooses to be their candidate will be gifted a seat in Parliament. We honour a murdered democrat by suspending democracy. Our political leaders respect her values service, community, tolerance – by treating her former constituency as heritable property. There can be no disjunctive voice, no division and no dissent: Jo Cox’s values, her political philosophy and her apprehension of the world order must be perpetuated “as a mark of respect to a much-loved and respected politician”. The Batley and Spen by-election thereby becomes a memorial, and her successor a living monument.

This won’t be a popular post: indeed, when slight disquiet was expressed about the decision not to contest the by-election, one Church of England vicar tweeted a terse response: “ shows generosity and integrity, which should be a mark of the Church: you should therefore shut up about it full stop.” You see how it goes: to demur, even respectfully, gently and politely, is met with a sanctified bark to muzzle valid opinion. Division must be driven out of public life, and there’s nothing so divisive to the ecclesial liberal elite as a right-wing Christian blogger, no matter how thoughtful or reasoned a treatise may be.

The thing is, there is something odd in not contesting a seat after a sitting MP has been murdered:

1990 Murder of Ian Gow by PIRA – By-election contested – LD gain
1984 Murder of Sir Anthony Berry by PIRA – By-election contested – CON hold
1981 Murder of The Rev Robert Bradford by PIRA – By-election contested – UUP hold
1979 Murder of Airey Neave by INLA – No by-election, but GE seat contested – CON hold
1922 Murder of Sir Henry Wilson by IRA – By-election uncontested.

So the last uncontested by-election in this tragic circumstance was in 1922 for North Down (which had occasional uncontested elections into the 1950s).

Perhaps things have moved on since the murder of Ian Gow: 26 years is an eternity in politics. Or is it that only murdered Protestants and Tories have to be challenged in the hope of driving their particular brand of hatred, division and intolerance from public life? Whatever, the decision not to contest Batley and Spen permits the Labour Party to put into Parliament anyone they want. Although it is extremely unlikely that the seat would have changed hands, it is an offence against democracy to respond to attack upon democracy with a rigged political appointment. Far better for all the main political parties to put up a full slate of candidates, and then for  those candidates to selflessly exhort the people of Batley and Spen to vote Labour as a mark of respect to a much-loved and respected politician. At least then the people would have been free to honour Jo Cox’s values of service, community and tolerance as they would wish to do, instead of being coerced into a contrived expression of political unity, or hectored into a mellow manifestation of Anglican generosity and integrity.