It was clear even before the 2010 election that there was the potential for clashes between the Conservative leadership and their MPs on issues such as same-sex marriage. An article published in 2009 noted that ‘David Cameron, and especially George Osborne are much more socially liberal than much of their parliamentary party, and that split will need to be handled carefully’. Last night’s votes on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill provided the first real chance to measure the gap between leaders and led.
One well-used indicator to measure the extent to which a political party splits is called the Index of Party Unity; very simply, the majority percentage minus the minority percentage, divided by 100. A united party will score 1.0, a party split down the middle will score 0.0. The scores for the Second Reading vote last night, which was a free vote for all the three main parties, were:
Lib Dem 0.84
So all the parties splintered but the Conservatives split, right down the middle, with a narrow majority of MPs voting opposing the Bill’s Second Reading. Labour and the Lib Dems were more or less equally united in favour. The definition of what Lowell in 1908 called a ‘party vote’ is one in which 90% of those voting vote together, and on that definition both the Lib Dems and Labour achieved party votes.
Splitting down the middle as the Conservatives did is not unknown. During the votes in 2003, for example, over House of Lords reform one division – on the vote for an 80% elected House – saw the Conservative IPU hit 0.02. There was a vote in 1997 on gun control during which the Liberal Democrats pulled off a perfect 50:50 split, scoring 0. Despite the party’s reputation as pro-capital punishment, the last time the House of Commons discussed restoring the death penalty, in 1994, the Conservative IPU was just 0.09.
Nor, as we pointed out here, is it entirely unknown to see a Prime Minister in the lobbies with a minority of their party. It’s not even the first time David Cameron has found himself in a minority of his own party as leader. In March 2007, for example, Conservative MPs divided 25:75 against the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations. David Cameron was one of just 29 Conservative MPs to back the measure.
Those Conservative MPs to vote for same-sex marriage this week were disproportionately female, younger, and from the new 2010 intake. Of those to vote (and exclude any double vote abstentions), Conservative women split 61:39 in favour of same-sex marriage; men were split 46:54 against. Those Conservative MPs born before 1970 split 45:55 against, but those born in 1970 or after split 58:42 in favour. And those from the new 2010 intake split exactly 50:50, whereas those from earlier intakes were 46:54 against.
The problem for David Cameron is that two of these groups of disproportionate support are relatively small whilst amongst the numerically large 2010 intake, support may be stronger than amongst the older lags but it was hardly overwhelming. At every one of the last three elections there have been claims about how the new intake of Conservative MPs would be more socially liberal, and shift the balance of power in the party. The reality has always been more mixed.
Less noticed last night amidst the hoo-ha of the Second Reading vote there were also three smaller whipped rebellions over the programme motion, the carry over motion, and even the money resolution. A total of 43 Coalition MPs – 41 Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats – voted against the Government on one or more of these three motions, and against a three-line whip. The antis are clearly not intending to go quietly. There will be trouble ahead when the Bill comes back from committee, let alone before it reaches the House of Lords.