30 minutes with John Bercow

John BercowJohn Bercow is possibly the most famous Speaker of the House of Commons in modern  history, and he’s not even half way through his self imposed nine year term. His shifting political positions, high profile confrontations, outspoken wife, short stature, verbose oratory, all make John Bercow a recognisable and easily caricatured figure.

I am currently researching the effect of Bercow’s reform agenda – which aims to empower backbenchers – on his relationship with frontbench MPs. Not the most exciting topic on first appearance, but I have found some interesting tales of parliamentary dissent, and found praise for the Speaker from unlikely sources, including the infamous Nadine Dorries. It is because of this research that Mark Stuart asked me to chair the Q&A session with John Bercow during the Parliament in the UK module’s recent trip to Westminster.

After sessions with Andrew Lansley (Leader of the House), Sir George Young (Chief Whip), Steve McCabe (former Labour whip), and Jack Straw (Former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House), I was excited to finally meet Bercow. It’s odd to meet someone you’re writing an essay on; the abstract suddenly becomes real. The first thing that struck me was that he isn’t as short as I thought, maybe because I am not tall myself, but I do think the enormity of the Speaker’s Chair adds to the “dwarf” caricature.

During the Q&A session Bercow displayed the passion, whit, and self-deprecation for which he is known. He answered questions on The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body in charge of MPs expenses, with a determined and zealous defence of MPs and the agency, whilst admitting there is still room for improvement. He diplomatically deflected a question on the convention that the three major parties do not contest the Speaker’s constituency by saying the decision lay with the House.

I questioned him on his high profile confrontations with MPs, such as former Government Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin and former Health Minister Simon Burns, who called Bercow a “sanctimonious little dwarf”. Bercow jovially repeated this line to the audience to a response of awkward laughter. He admitted he could have dealt with the situation involving McLoughlin better, and should have kept his temper, but maintains that he is not a “barer of grudges” and holds no ill will towards the two.

After my 30 minutes with John Bercow I think I will have to rewrite parts of my essay. I have come away with the impression that Bercow does want to uphold Parliamentary integrity, even if he is still prone to the occasional outburst, self-promotion, or longwinded speech.

Adam Charlton is a third year BA Politics student at the University of Nottingham.

Polling Observatory #11: When is a tie not a tie?

This is the eleventh of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence, we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

“Prediction is very difficult” Niels Bohr wrote once, “especially about the future.” Over Christmas, we wrote that the polling boost Cameron’s Conservatives received following the EU summit “veto” might prove fleeting, as voters’ attention returned to the bleak landscape of domestic politics. Our latest estimates defy this prediction, with the Conservatives continuing to poll above their 2011 averages in the New Year. Our estimate of Conservative support for January 2012 is 37.7%, up 0.3 points from last month and close to 4 points above the low points of 2011. Labour’s estimate stands at 37.8%, down 0.8 points from last month. For the second month in a row the two main parties are in a statistical tie. The junior partner in the governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats, continue to flatline below 10%. We have them at 8.6% this month, down 0.2 points on last month.

Cameron’s resurgence in the polls, and Ed Miliband’s continued struggles, have lead some commentators to speculate about a possible Conservative majority at the next election. This is premature. Although the two parties are level pegging in the polls, the Conservatives continue to suffer a handicap when votes are translated into seats at Westminster. Estimates from the Electoral Calculus website suggest that at equal vote shares of 38%, the Labour party would be 38 seats ahead of the Conservatives, and only three seats short of an overall majority. The Conservatives need a lead of 3-4% in votes in order to draw level in seats, and a lead of 7-9% in order to achieve a majority of one seat. So, in other words, drawing level in votes is not enough for Cameron’s Conservatives: they need leads close to double digits to be confident of securing an outright majority.

Why does the electoral system put the Conservatives at such a disadvantage? As detailed by Michael Thrasher and colleagues in a recent article, the main advantages to Labour are the result of the geographical distribution of its support, and variation in turnout between constituencies. The geographical effect comes about because Conservative votes tend to be concentrated in constituencies with very large Conservative majorities, while Labour votes are more evenly spread across the seats Labour win. This means less Labour votes than Conservative votes are “wasted” just to add to already large majorities in already safe seats.

Also, turnout tends to be higher in Conservative held seats than Labour held ones, so even if both sets of constituencies have equal number of eligible votes, more votes are cast to elect Conservative MPs than Labour MPs, as in Labour seats fewer voters show up at all on polling day. A third, much smaller, source of Labour advantage is differences in the number of eligible voters in Conservative and Labour seats, which results both from constitutional legacies such as the over-representation of Wales at Westminster and from the continuous movement of voters away from declining, Northern, Labour voting regions towards expanding, suburban Southern seats which lean Conservative.

Many commentators have suggested that the boundary changes being brought in by the Coalition will “level the playing field” at the next election. This is unlikely. The boundary changes will only deal with the effect of uneven constituency sizes, which is a small contribution to the bias in the system. The much larger effects of uneven geographical distribution and voter turnout will remain. Loyal Conservatives in the shires are likely to continue dutifully piling up massive majorities for their local MP’s at the next election, and as a result Cameron’s party will continue to face a tougher challenge than the polling suggests.

Rob FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Gay Marriage, Conservative Divorce?

‘Prediction is very difficult’, said Niels Bohr, ‘especially if it’s about the future’ – and it’s always potentially embarrassing when you revisit things you wrote and in which you had confidently predicted what was to come.

Take, for example, this 2009 article, looking at the likely state of the Conservative Parliamentary Party after the election.

It argued the party would look very different: lots of new MPs, more women, more from ethnic minorities, although no less middle class than before.  That was at least right, if fairly easy to predict.  It went on to argue that in the short term this would be good for the whips, because new MPs are less rebellious, but that balancing their demands with those of the more established MPs  would cause problems of party management. That was (at best) only half right, with the new MPs being far more rebellious than expected.

It also argued that there was a group of existing rebellious Conservative MPs whose behaviour was unlikely to change, and of those it identified almost all have indeed continued to cause trouble for the whips (save for the most rebellious of the lot, Ken Clarke, who finds himself in the Cabinet – but let’s see how long that lasts…). And it argued that whilst there would be backbench trouble ahead, there would at least be a short honeymoon. That one proved almost completely wrong; the honeymoon was so short as to be non-existent.

When it came to the issues that might trigger discontent, it argued that predicting which issues would cause difficulties for in government was ‘a bit of a mug’s game: too much depends on the circumstances in which legislation is introduced, how it is handled by ministers and so on’. But it argued there ‘are several issues where at least the potential for trouble is clear’, of which ‘the most obvious’ was Europe.  So, again, correct, if fairly obvious.

The other area highlighted was issues ‘such as abortion, Lords reform and homosexuality’.  Whilst not traditionally high politics, these issues can often be defused at least in part by allowing backbenchers to vote as they please, but as the example of fox hunting showed after 1997, such issues can matter to backbenchers more than some traditionally important ones.  And (as the 2009 piece noted), based on their voting thus far, ‘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’.

Abortion has already caused some headaches.  The vote on gay marriage – which has been promised before the next election – will be another good test of this thesis.  Whilst the Conservative Party’s relationship with the issue of gay rights is more complicated than it first seems – as the excellent new book Tory Pride and Prejudice shows – the stance of the majority of Conservative MPs over the last few years has been predominantly hostile to moves to liberalize the law, whenever they’ve been given a chance.

In March 2007 for instance, 85 Conservative MPs voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which brought into force provisions for gay adoption. This dwarfed the 29 Conservative votes for, on a free vote, which included David Cameron.

It is true that the majority of those Conservative MPs to vote – again on a free vote – backed the Civil Partnership Bill itself in 2004 at both Second and Third Reading, but on a lowish turnout in both cases, and when it came to the detail of the bill many dug their heels in.  By Third Reading, the division was 43 Conservatives for, 39 against, with the rest absent.  Our suspicion is that there will also be a lot of convenient absences over gay marriage.

Much will depend on how the mass of new MPs behave.  Conventional wisdom is that they are more socially liberal than those they replaced.  Maybe so, but by how much?  One other point made in that 2009 paper is that it is not easy to read directly across from attitudes claimed when outside the Commons to those inside, and we’ve so far had relatively little hard evidence on which to judge claims about the new intake.  There have been just over 40 free votes since the 2010 election, but many have not been on issues that would provide much or any insight into how the new MPs will vote on an issue like gay marriage.  Until they vote, like everyone else, we’re just guessing.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Parliamentary nerds! Here be more facts for you!

Last night saw 81 Conservative MPs rebel against the Government, making it not only the largest ever Tory rebellion on Europe in Government, but very nearly twice as large as the previous biggest Tory rebellion suffered by David Cameron in Government.

The 81 Conservatives were joined in the aye lobby by 19 Labour rebels, eight DUP members, one independent unionist, one Green, one Liberal Democrat (Adrian Sanders), along with two Conservative MPs – Iain Stewart and Mike Weatherley – who cast deliberate abstentions by voting in both lobbies.

Previous rebelliousness on Europe proved an astonishingly good predictor of last night’s voting patterns, as the table below shows. Of the 78 Conservative MPs to have cast dissenting votes on Europe so far this Parliament, 62 (80%) voted against the Government last night. The rebels found safety in numbers. Moreover, as the table shows, there was a clear relationship between previous propensity to rebel and behavior on Monday. Of the 39 who had rebelled on at least two occasions before over Europe, all but one did so again last night.

(Similarly, of the 60 Conservative MPs who signed the rebel motion last week, 56 went on to dissent last night. Only two Conservative backbenchers – David Mowat and Ian Liddell-Grainger – who signed the motion voted with the Government, while one – Mike Weatherley – cast a deliberate abstention by voting in both lobbies).

What is most striking however, about last night’s rebellion is that of the 81 Tory rebels, 49 were drawn from the 2010 intake. In other words, very nearly six in ten of the rebels (59%) were new MPs. New MPs are usually disproportionately loyal. Not this lot, as we’ve noted before. One frustration – though only one – is that the whips cannot offer them jobs in Government because there simply are not enough to go around given the need to satisfy the Liberal Democrats.

Of the 81 rebels, 64 already had form from this Parliament, having defied the whips at least once. But that still leaves 17 new rebels. With the exception of the two PPSs who resigned – Adam Holloway and Stewart Jackson – together with the Monmouth MP David TC Davies (all three of whom are drawn from the 2005 intake), the remainder of the new rebels were first elected in 2010: Stuart Andrew; Dan Byles; Lorraine Fullbrook; George Hollingbery; Marcus Jones; Andrea Leadsom; Karen Lumley; Anne Marie Morris; James Morris; Stephen McPartland; Neil Parish; Priti Patel; Julian Sturdy; and Heather Wheeler

Taken together, the addition of these 17 new rebels bring the total number of Conservative MPs to have defied the whip so far this Parliament to 116.

There have now been 121 Conservative rebellions so far this Parliament, representing 32.5% of divisions – in other words, almost one third of all divisions have seen some Conservative dissent. Relationship between previous behavior on Europe and referendum vote

Name Previous rebellions on Europe, 2010-2011 Vote on Referendum, 24 October
Hollobone, Philip 22 For
Bone, Peter 21 For
Nuttall, David 19 For
Cash, William 17 For
Carswell, Douglas 16 For
Turner, Andrew 16 For
Chope, Christopher 15 For
Davies, Philip 15 For
Main, Anne 15 For
Clappison, James 14 For
Reckless, Mark 14 For
Jenkin, Bernard 12 For
Shepherd, Richard 11 For
Lewis, Dr Julian 10 For
Baker, Steve 9 For
Percy, Andrew 9 For
Redwood, John 9 For
Davis, David 8 For
Goldsmith, Zac 8 For
Henderson, Gordon 8 For
Drax, Richard 7 For
Binley, Brian 6 For
McCartney, Jason 6 For
Tapsell, Sir Peter 6 For
Walker, Charles 6 For
Baron, John 5 For
Bridgen, Andrew 5 For
Gray, James 5 For
McCartney, Karl 4 For
Vickers, Martin 4 For
Stuart, Graham 4 Against
Leigh, Edward 3 For
Rees-Mogg, Jacob 3 For
Bingham, Andrew 2 For
de Bois, Nick 2 For
Kelly, Chris 2 For
Stewart, Bob 2 For
Blackman, Bob 2 For
Reevel, Simon 2 For
Brady, Graham 1 For
Dineage, Caroline 1 For
Field, Mark 1 For
Mercer, Patrick 1 For
Mills, Nigel 1 For
Mosley, Nigel 1 For
Offord, Matthew 1 For
Pritchard, Mark 1 For
Smith, Henry 1 For
Tomlinson, Justin 1 For
Whittingdale, John 1 For
Wollaston, Dr Sarah 1 For
Bebb, Guto 1 Against
Bottomley, Sir Peter 1 Against
Cox, Geoffrey 1 Against
Eustice, George 1 Abstained
Freer, Mike 1 Against
Halfon, Robert 1 Against
Heaton-Harris, Chris 1 For
Latham, Pauline 1 Against
Lilley, Peter 1 Against
Raab, Dominic 1 Abstained
Stanley, Sir John 1 Against
Stephenson, Andrew 1 Against
Crouch, Tracey 0 For
Davies, David T C 0 For
Dorries, Nadine 0 For
Liddell-Grainger, Ian 0 Against
Morris, Anne Marie 0 For
Mowat, David 0 Against
Murray, Sheryll 0 For
Nokes, Caroline 0 For
Patel, Priti 0 For
Robertson, Laurence 0 For
Rosindell, Andrew 0 For
Spencer, Mark 0 Abstained
Weatherley, Mike 0 Double vote
Wheeler, Heather 0 For
Whittaker, Craig 0 For

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart