Five more things about the boundaries vote

revoltstitle2The media caravan has already moved on, but for the record here are five more observations about the boundaries vote, in increasing order of importance.

1. Not that it really matters but we think the Commons authorities have miscounted.  The result was announced as 334 noes (to which need to be added the two tellers), but we count 335 in the noe lobby (plus two tellers).

2. At 98%, overall turnout of MPs was very high, as you’d expect on a vote that was expected to be close (even if, in practice, it turned out to be less close than rumoured).  All 57 Liberal Democrat MPs turned out to vote against the Conservatives and there was a very healthy turnout of the minor parties (only the DUP were understrength, with six of their eight MPs), and all bar one of these, the Alliance’s Naomi Long, voted against the Government. There was an almost full Labour turnout.  Conservative turnout was marginally lower, suggesting both a handful of abstentions and that not every minister was called back to vote. The latter, in particular, indicates that the whips would have known they were going to lose.

3. There were four Conservative MPs voting with Labour: John Baron, David Davis, Philip Davies and Sir Richard Shepherd.  Rumours that there would be a Full House of the four Conservative Davis/Davies (Davii?) proved unfounded, as David Davies voted with his whips, although Glyn Davies was one of those not to vote.

4. One of the curiosities of this Parliament has been the high level of rebellions seen on both the Lib Dem and Conservative benches. In one sense, this is easily to explain but one aspect of coalition governments is supposed to be that they increase the cohesion of parliamentarians.  After all, if two parties do a deal, but they cannot control their backbenchers to deliver on the deal, what’s the point of the deal?  The Parliament’s early rebellions might, conceivably, have been dismissed as mostly sound and fury, given that none resulted in a defeat. This is not a view that we took – nor, we suspect, one that would have been taken by many of the party whips – because once MPs have developed a habit of rebelling on minor matters they find it much easier to rebel on major ones too, just as they are now doing.  All of this has occurred because of backbench behaviour, because Conservative MPs were not willing to follow their party line in the votes over Lords reform.

5. Part of the point of the Coalition – from the Liberal Democrats’ perspective, at least – was to try to show that hung parliaments were not a bad thing, to get the British used to minority and coalition government.  Liberal Democrats would routinely point out that much of Europe manages perfectly well with coalitions.  True, but in most (all?) of those coalitions, a coalition partner voting against the government and defeating something that was in the coalition agreement would have signalled the end of the coalition.  That we appear to have just carried on, almost as if nothing has happened, indicates that we may still be some way away from having got used to coalition government.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Electoral boundaries: the vote that will be forever asterisked


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