For those wanting to make gentle chit-chat, the subject of the reform of the abortion laws is probably best avoided. But as an example of some fascinating aspects of policy-making and political representation it is an absolute cracker of an issue.
The procedural difference is the most obvious and straight-forward. Abortion has long been seen as a so-called issue of conscience (although the phrase is not very helpful, as I argued here), in which the parties do not issue instructions and their MPs are allowed to vote as they see fit.
As a result, it is therefore often seen as ‘non-party’, and somehow above the party fray. But although the whips are removed and MPs free to vote how they like, the most striking feature of the voting on the issue is that party remains by far the strongest predictor of how MPs will vote. Take, for example, the Commons votes in 2008, the last major set of votes on this issue. On the vote on reducing the time limit to 22 weeks, some 80% of Labour MPs voted against; they were faced in the other division lobby by 83% of Conservative MPs. I’ve been writing on the subject of issues of conscience, on and off, for about 15 years now, and there is one golden rule: when it comes to the voting in the Commons, whatever people say, these are party issues.
Yet the same partisan divide is not present amongst the public as a whole. Take, for example, a poll YouGov did earlier this year. It found 35% of Conservative supporters wanted to see a reduction in the time limits for abortion, compared to 38% of Labour supporters and 32% of Lib Dems. In other words, there were no substantive party differences at all. The differences are purely elite-level differences.
Even more curious is the role that gender plays. Abortion is the archetypical women’s issue – and exactly the sort of issue that makes people say that it is important to have women in parliament in order to ensure that the women’s perspective is accurately reflected – and there is indeed a consistent gender effect in the voting in the Commons. Women MPs are – and have been for a long time – more liberal on the issue than male MPs. Following the 2010 election we now have enough women on both the Conservative and Labour benches to be sure that this is not just a difference caused by the behaviour of Labour women MPs. If we look at the voting on Nadine Dorries’s amendment, in 2011, we find that not only were women MPs more likely to participate in the vote but compared to male MPs of all three main parties they were more likely to vote against Dorries’s amendment than for it.
Conservative women MPs were roughly 50% more likely to vote against the Dorries amendment than Conservative men (74% of Conservative women voted against the amendment, compared to 50% of Conservative men). Similar, if weaker, differences exist for Labour (97% of Labour women MPs voted against the amendment, compared to 94% of Labour men) and the Lib Dems (93% of Lib Dem men voted against the amendment, compared to 100% of Lib Dem women MPs who voted).
In each case, party still trumped gender; if you wanted someone who would vote against the Dorries amendment – and all you knew about them was their sex and their party – you were still better off with a Labour or Lib Dem male MP (6% and 7% respectively of whom voted for the amendment) than a Conservative woman (26% of whom voted for it). But there was still a gender effect. All other things being equal, the effect of having more women MPs in the Commons therefore is to make the Commons more liberal on abortion.
But again there is a difference with the electorate at large. Women voters are not more liberal than male voters on abortion. Indeed, if anything, the opposite. The same YouGov poll cited above found that women were more likely – indeed, much more likely – to favour a reduction in the abortion time limits than men. Some 49% of women wanted a reduction in the time limits, compared to just 24% of men. Other polls do not always produce such stark differences, but the direction is usually the same, as this excellent summary shows.
Abortion is often held up as a prime example of ‘substantive representation’ – the idea that substantive changes in policy or behaviour will follow a change in the composition of the House of Commons – both because it is so obviously an issue that affects women disproportionately (some would say solely) and because it is one of those issues (of which there are relatively few) where there is indeed a noticeable difference in behaviour. And yet the one thing women MPs are certainly not doing is reflecting the issue preferences of women in the electorate. They would, of course, argue that they are reflecting women’s interests as they see them, but in the same way that it is striking that the issue so polarises partisans at Westminster when it does not voters as a whole, it is still curious that women MPs and women in general take such divergent views of their interests. I have yet to hear anyone argue that we must have more male MPs to better represent the views of women on abortion, but it would not be much of a stretch.