The 2022 Southend West by-election was held on February 3rd, to elect a replacement for the previous incumbent Sir David Amess, who was murdered while attending a constituency surgery in October 2021. Out of respect for Sir David, major opposition parties did not put forward candidates for the election, and the Conservative candidate Anna Firth was elected with 86.1% of the vote.

The by-election was fairly notable as far as turnout and spoilt ballot papers go; according to the BBC:

Turnout at just 24% was one of the lowest for a Westminster by-election since World War Two, while the number of spoilt ballot papers rose four-fold to more than 1,000 - a figure higher than the number of votes any of the minor parties and independent candidates attracted.

Some chose to write messages including "Boris do a Brexit - get out" - a sign that events in Westminster have played out here at the polls.

The number of spoilt papers seems particularly high - looking at the comparable 2016 Batley and Spen by-election held to replace the murdered MP Jo Cox, there were just 171 spoilt ballots with a similar turnout.

Was the number of spoilt ballot papers - 1,084 - a record for a Westminster election, either in raw numbers or as a percentage of turnout?

1 Answer 1


Yes in terms of as a proportion of valid ballots, no in terms of raw numbers.

The 1979 General Election had a particularly large number of spoilt ballots, and still holds the record at 117,848 with the 2019 General Election a close second with 117,101. According to the Commons Library's UK Election Statistics: 1918-2021: A Century of Elections, this was due to the general election coinciding with local elections, meaning voters receiving two ballot papers, confusing the voting process.

According to British Electoral Facts 1832-2006, the constituency holding the record for the most spoilt ballots was in this 1979 election in Belfast West, with 2,283. As a proportion of the 33,289 valid ballots, this is about 6.85%. In the same general election in Cardiff West, there were slightly fewer spoilt ballots, at 2,253, but as a proportion of the 31,594 valid ballots this is slightly higher at about 7.13%. This is still lower than the 7.41% in Southend West, however, so as far as I can tell this is a new record in these terms.

As far as the local reasons for these high numbers of spoilt ballots, the Troubles in Northern Ireland affected the situation in Belfast, while Cardiff West was then-Speaker George Thomas' seat - meaning some voters spoilt their ballot in protest at not having a candidate of their preferred political party to vote for. Indeed, since 2000 the largest number of spoilt ballots have been cast in the Speaker's constituencies - the high point being 1,967 spoilt ballots in Buckingham at the 2017 General Election.

  • Belfast West was (and still is) a strongly Republican/Nationalist area, and in 1979, Sinn Fein were still not contesting elections in the north (1981 was the turning point in their strategy, and they won the constituency at the next election in 1983 from the SDLP). Although there weren't local elections in NI in 1979, I assume a lot of people still went to the polling stations to indicate their displeasure with the British government. See Wikipedia
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 13:45

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