Electoral boundaries: the vote that will be forever asterisked

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Yesterday’s Commons vote on the electoral boundaries was a headache for the Conservative Party. The vote – an attempt to over-turn an amendment made in the House of Lords – failed by 334 to 292, making the Conservative task at the next election harder, by around 20 or so seats, than it would have been had the revised boundaries gone through.

It was also a headache for those of us who study parliamentary voting. Whilst we do not expect widespread sympathy – ‘Quick! Some academics are having problems with their system of classification – call the Disasters Emergency Committee!’ – the vote was interesting as an example of how the coalition has changed some of our assumptions about what is, or is not, allowed when it comes to the Commons, and about how we measure it.

It is not the first time the two Coalition parties have had different whipping arrangements on measures in the Commons.  The Coalition Agreement specifically allows for the Liberal Democrats to abstain on votes over both tuition fees and nuclear power.  We have also seen plenty of examples, in record-breaking quantities, of backbenchers on both sides of the coalition refusing to go along with things that their frontbench has wanted.  Indeed, it was the rebellion by Conservative backbenchers over Lords reform – a whopping rebellion at Second Reading, with the threat of something similar over the Bill’s programme motion – that persuaded the Government to drop the House of Lords Bill, and which then triggered Lib Dem retaliation over boundaries.

But this issue has highlighted the asymmetry in the power enjoyed by the coalition parties’ backbenchers.  The Commons arithmetic is such that even if every backbench Lib Dem MP rebels on an issue, there are not enough of them to defeat the government; but there are enough backbench Conservative MPs to do so – as we saw over the issue of the European budget.  This means that coalition measures can be blocked if enough Conservative backbenchers are willing to join forces with Labour, but they cannot be blocked if Lib Dem backbenchers are similarly annoyed.  And so, whilst it is perfectly fair to point out – as some Conservatives did – that the Conservative rebellion over Lords reform was, as a proportion of the party, smaller than the Lib Dem revolt over tuition fees, the absolute numbers also matter.

And what happened yesterday was qualitatively different.  Yesterday saw government MPs whipped, in different directions, and with the Lib Dems voting in direct contravention of the Coalition Agreement.  How do we record this?  Does the Lib Dem behaviour count as ‘dissent’? And if so, from what?  And second, was the outcome a government defeat? And if so, of what exactly?

The first is fairly easy answered.  The Lib Dems were whipped, so whatever they were doing, they were not dissenting from their party line.  This was an inter-party not intra-party breakdown.  But it was still an intra-coalition breakdown, what our colleagues at UCL who work on similar behaviour in the Lords have called a ‘coalition split vote’.

The second is tougher. When the government lost the equivalent vote in the Lords, some media outlets did indeed describe it as a government defeat – as did the House of Lords authorities.  But is it?  To have a government defeat, we need a government position, and with two parties in the coalition voting in separate lobbies it is not clear what that position was.  As an aside: if, just because the Conservatives lost, we describe it as a government defeat, we could, presumably, describe it as a government victory because the Lib Dems won?  It all makes us long for the ease of one-party governments again, a bit like a former colleague whose main wish for life was to see the Berlin Wall go back up just so his lecture notes on the USSR would become useable again.

The best we’ve come up with so far was suggested by Tom Freeman: ‘defeat of a governing party’, but we also liked Nigel Fletcher’s suggestion that however one describes it the vote will forever be asterisked, with a footnote explaining the unusual circumstances.  That might depend on it remaining unusual and a one-off.  With over two years of the coalition left to run, it seems quite possible that we will see further votes of this sort, with one or more of the coalition partners refusing to back something that they have both previously signed up to.

There was also yesterday some old-fashioned backbench dissent – a handful of Conservative MPs voting with Labour – but who cares about that anymore?

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

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