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Comparing the Numbers: MPs Leaving Now to Previous Elections

Isla Glaister

March 2023

How does the number of MPs planning to step down compare to previous years?

The Conservative Party has asked its MPs to decide whether they plan to stand in the next election. Several have already made clear they will not. But how does the number compare to those deciding to stand down ahead of previous elections?

26 MPs have said they intend to stand down at the next general election - 13 Conservatives, 12 Labour and one Plaid Cymru.

Between 1979 and 2019, an average of 85 MPs stood down at each election. 2010 holds the record with 149 MPs deciding not to continue pursuing a parliamentary career. 1997 is close behind, with 117 MPs standing down.

Both those years are outliers, and they have three things in common:

  • The first is the redrawing of constituency boundaries affecting the chances of success of several MPs

  • The second is the elections took place after one party had been in government for more than a decade

  • The third is they took place after a period of economic turmoil, which reduced people's standard of living

And here we are again.

At the next election, the Conservatives will have been in power for more than 12 years (the first five of those were in coalition). The cost of living crisis is affecting the value of people's wages and the price they have to pay for essential goods. There's also little sign of economic growth. Finally, if the poll happens after July next year, it is likely to be contested on new constituency boundaries, hampering the prospects of success for some MPs.

A post-war record 149 MPs stood down at the 2010 general election

If you discount the election of October 1974, which took place just 8 months after the one before, 2017 recorded the lowest number of MPs to stand down since 1945 - 31. However, it is difficult to compare the number to other elections because the parliament lasted just two years, not five.

This is why the 74 who retired ahead of the 2019 election is noteworthy. It is not out of place with parliaments that ran full term, yet this one lasted just 30 months. The discontent and defections over Brexit made a considerable contribution.

In fact, four turbulent parliamentary cycles in nine years caused quite a turnover in our representatives at Westminster.

Why does this matter?

It has an impact on new young talent entering the fray and the level of experience in the commons.

In 2019, those who stood down were a mix of younger MPs and talented ones with plenty of ministerial experience but short parliamentary careers. Their average age was 60 years, and the average number of years they had spent in the Commons was 18.

Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, has noted: "Almost a third (32%) of those departing the Commons out of choice had less than a decade's experience, while around a quarter (23%) had 25 years or more under their belts."

This compares to 15% and 37% in 2001, with similar figures for 1970.

"In 1970, long-serving retirees were almost four times greater than those jumping ship early; in 2019 the latter outnumbered the former," says Professor Cowley.

In their chapter for "the British General Election of 2019", Dr Chris Butler and professors Rosie Campbell and Jennifer Hudson noted the younger age of the Conservative women retiring in 2019 compared to others standing down.

In 2019 retiring Conservative women had spent less time in the Commons than other MPs standing down

The nine women included Heidi Allen and Nicky Morgan, who could have played a prominent role in politics for another decade or so.

What about first time MPs?

In 2019 just over one in five (22%) of the 650 MPs elected were new to parliament. This level of inexperience has been seen before. In the Blair landslide election of 1997, 37% of those elected were first time MPs, while more than half the House had less than five years of experience.

As Professor Cowley has pointed out, inexperience can be a disadvantage and lead to naivety, but it can also lead to innovation.

It is also possible that the departure of MPs with recent ministerial experience may be balanced out somewhat by the potential return of some politicians who served in the last Labour government.

Former international development secretary Douglas Alexander is known to be planning to stand for election in Scotland, while there are rumours of possible Westminster comebacks for David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls.

© Isla Glaister / Sky News

Image - PoliticsHome


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