The House of Commons is not as ineffective as we think when it comes to amending legislation

The House of Commons is generally considered to be ineffective when it comes to amending government legislation. The statistics back this up: no government legislation was rejected outright in the last Parliament. Even in the much less public confines of the committee rooms, 99.9% of government amendments are accepted and successful opposition amendments are rare, averaging less than 1%. But simply counting votes and amendments won or lost in the chamber and in committees doesn’t do the House of Commons, or its members, justice. Looking in more detail at what is actually going on behind the scenes as bills make their way through Parliament tells a very different story.

My research delves beneath the surface of amendments moved to legislation. It considers over 3,500 hours of committee and report stage scrutiny and over 24,000 amendments tabled to 139 government bills between 2000 and 2010. It demonstrates not just the level of parliamentary activity but also its real effect on legislation. Ministers may be quick to resist amendments moved in committee but they actually agree to make many more changes than previously thought. This is because they often give an undertaking to address issues raised by MPs outside the confines of the committee room. These undertakings are not simply false promises. Ministers are quite often true to their word and their consideration of amendments often brings significant changes when bills go back to the floor of the House for their report stage.

A small snapshot of the data collected shows the difference that MPs are really making to government legislation:

1.    Labour ministers may have resisted 99% of amendments moved in committee, but they gave an undertaking to reconsider 16% of them; that’s around 6 changes in each bill.

2.    They agreed to update or amend 125 regulations and pieces of guidance accompanying bills.

3.    104 changes were made through government amendments while bills were still in committee in response to issues raised by MPs in earlier sittings. The exclusion of the imitation firearms used in historical re-enactments was one of these changes, made at the committee stage of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (2005-06).

4.    22 government amendments made in committee began their lives as opposition amendments, only to be signed by the government minister before consideration in committee began.

5.    At least 58% of the undertakings made by ministers to consider amendments further resulted in changes at report. This resulted in 75 new clauses, one new schedule and 164 amendments to bills.

6.    In addition, they made a further 1331 changes based on amendments that had been moved by MPs in committee; an average of 10 in each bill. Extending the powers of staff in FE colleges to search students for weapons was one such change, again made during the passage of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.

In reality the impact of opposition and backbench MPs is probably even greater than this. There are likely to be many more changes made by the government in which credit is simply not given to committees and MPs where it is due or where a change is made later on, in the House of Lords.

We see evidence in the current Parliament of backbenchers becoming increasingly assertive; select committees growing in stature and MPs rebelling more frequently than in any other post-war Parliament. But we must not judge this new assertiveness against a false understanding of the House of Commons’ previous influence. MPs may be making a more public show of what they are capable of, but they have been making a real difference to legislation via committees throughout the twenty first century and they continue to do so now.

Louise Thompson has recently completed her PhD at the University of Hull examining the impact of bill committees on government bills under an ESRC studentship.

Cambo Chained

coming-soonWe’ve been producing end-of-session reports detailing the rebellions of government backbenchers for several years now, and last year’s was a whopper: the largest number of rebellions faced by any Prime Minister in any post war session, the largest rate of rebellion to boot.  Without pre-empting this year’s report (and not least because the session is not yet complete), the one we are preparing for this year tells a more nuanced story – but still with plenty in it to worry the whips.

Mark Stuart and I are drafting the final report now.  It is due out in mid-May, and will be available free for download from this blog.

Above is the working title and cover.  Before anyone points it out: yes, it should, technically, be Dcambo (‘The D is silent’), but there’s a limit to how many pop culture references I can face explaining to my mum in one go.

Philip Cowley


Are rebellious MPs more effective?

Image by Steve Punter

Image by Steve Punter

This post originally appeared on

As someone who’s spent a long time – and probably far too long – studying the willingness of MPs to vote against their party line, I’m often asked the question: is it effective? MPs who rebel, especially those who rebel a lot, claim it is: that only by voting against their party line can they make their party leadership listen. But others, especially those who rebel rarely if at all, will tell you that it is possible to work perfectly effectively within the confines of the party system; indeed, they will claim that by rebelling MPs often diminish the clout they can have with the leadership and that working behind the scenes is more effective than going public with disagreements.

This poll of ‘experts’ (I was one of them, so I put the phrase in quotation marks advisedly), measuring the effectiveness of MPs, offered a chance to get to grips with this question. At least that was the hope. The problem is that by producing such a mixture of types of people and behaviour, it is no helpful at all!

For sure, top of the list comes Douglas Carswell, who has rebelled on 32 occasions so far this parliament, making him one of the more rebellious Conservative MPs.  But right behind him comes Robert Halfon, who has rebelled only very infrequently (just twice this parliament), and he’s followed by Stella Creasy, who has been 100% loyal to the Labour line.

Joint fifth you have two Labour MPs with very different types of behaviour: Frank Field, rebellious on a relatively high number of occasions (17 so far this parliament) but very far from the most rebellious Labour MP and Margaret Hodge, steadfastly loyal to the party whip, but who uses the select committee system to great advantage.

Add in the three names who were on the shortlist but who just failed to make the top five – Ken Clarke, Graham Allen, Zac Goldsmith – and the picture gets even foggier. Clarke was a leading Conservative rebel during the last parliament, before being invited back onto the frontbench, where he is loyal in vote (if not always in voice). Zac Goldsmith has rebelled on 28 occasions thus far this parliament and is one of the more rebellious Conservatives.  Graham Allen, however, will vote against the party line, but only does so rarely (just six times so far this parliament) and is another who is currently utilising the select committee system to good effect.

We can, probably, claim two things. The first is that, whilst being willing to vote against the party line isn’t a requirement to be seen as effective, it does help. Of the eight names on the short list, all but two had rebelled in this parliament or the last. But equally, being seen as a serial rebel does not help. It is striking that none of the top five Conservative rebels – Philip Hollobone, David Nuttall, Philip Davies, Peter Bone, Christopher Chope – made the shortlist. Or indeed none of the top five Labour rebels – Dennis Skinner, Kelvin Hopkins, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, or Paul Flynn.

There is also not a single Liberal Democrat on the list, whether rebellious or not, but that may be another story.

Philip Cowley

A blog post about Conservative press regulation rebellions written in the style of a Royal Charter


AND WHEREAS most people on Monday were interested in press regulation, we were interested in Conservative rebellions on press regulation.

AND WHEREAS the vote would have been very tight anyway, the chances of a Conservative victory in the division lobbies had become impossible once a half-decent number of Conservative MPs declared their intention to rebel and back a Labour amendment.  Had he pushed it to a vote, the Prime Minister would have lost.

AND WHEREAS the agreement placated these pro-Leveson Conservative MPs, it infuriated the anti-Leveson ones. As Tracy Crouch wrote, ‘I hate going to bed a loyalist and then wake up a rebel’.

AND WHEREAS the first rebellion came on the programme motion (16 Conservative MPs, 8 Labour and a mix of others), 14 Conservative MPs then voted against the clause on exemplary damages – including Richard Bacon, doing so for the first time.

AND WHEREAS the Prime Minister – for reasons no one has been able to explain to us – said during the debate ‘this is a matter on which people should feel absolutely free to express their opinions and to vote according to their conscience’, this was a whipped vote – and we’re treating it as such.

AND WHEREAS a subsequent Labour amendment on the same Bill, not related to Press Regulation, saw Sarah Teather add to her small, but growing, tally of post-ministerial rebellions, it also saw Danny Alexander voting in both lobbies (we assume as a result of a mix-up rather than intentionally), and on the Labour side, Alan Whitehead is recorded voting with the Conservatives.

AND WHEREAS everyone was interested on Monday’s votes, there were also cracking Labour rebellions on Tuesday, largely overlooked by the media; Labour’s frontbench abstained on the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill, but 40 Labour MPs defied them on second reading, and 35 did so on third reading; these included five Labour MPs rebelling for the first time this Parliament, most notably Nick Brown, the (twice) former Chief Whip who rebelled on both second and third reading.

NOW KNOW YE that we are putting together our end of session summary document, for publication when the session is over, and it would make our life a lot easier if people could now calm down a bit.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Backbench revolts are in decline but party whips shouldn’t start celebrating just yet

Parliament resumes today, after the Christmas recess – and we have a rare piece of good news for the government whips. Having just updated our data on rebellions up until Christmas, we have been struck by the decline in the level of backbench revolt on the government side of the House.

The current session has been dominated by two major Conservative rebellions, one on House of Lords reform and one on Europe. In July, 91 Conservative MPs voted against the Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill. The scale of the rebellion was such that the government realised that it would not be able to win a vote on the Bill’s programme motion, and thus the legislation was dropped.  In October, 53 Conservative MPs joined the Labour Opposition in supporting a motion calling for a freezing of the EU Budget. The resulting defeat was the first Commons defeat to be suffered by the Coalition as a result of backbench dissent. David Cameron thus becomes the latest in the line of Prime Minister dating back to Edward Heath to have at least one Commons defeat inflicted on them by their own backbenchers.

But apart from these rebellions, there has been little to cause the whips too much trouble (although we are aware that this may be a little like the apocryphal question ‘apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’). There have been a total of 27 separate Coalition rebellions so far this session, which as a percentage of the total number of divisions amounts to a rebellion rate of 21%. This figure is roughly half the rate (44%) seen in the preceding session of 2010-12.  Split by the Coalition’s component parts, the Conservative rate of rebellion is running at 17% (21 rebellions out of 127 divisions) whereas in the last session it was 28%, with the Lib Dem rate even lower at 9% (11 out of 127), down from 24%.

Unlike the preceding session – which set post-war records – these are much more ‘normal’ rates of rebellion for parliamentary parties in the modern era, although they are still towards the high end.  A rate of 21%, for example, is higher than in all but 15 post-war sessions of the Commons. But it is no longer quite so exceptional: in the last 20 years, there have been eight sessions with rebellion at this rate or higher.

In total, 179 Coalition MPs have defied the whip in this Parliament thus far: 144 of these are Conservatives, 35 are Lib Dems. On the Lib Dem side of the House only one Lib Dem MP has rebelled for the first time this session – the ex-minister Sarah Tether – although on the Conservative side more than two dozen new rebels have rebelled for the first time (the majority doing so over Lords reform), bringing to 144 the number of Conservative MPs to have broken ranks since the Coalition was formed on May 2010, some 47% of the parliamentary party. Of these, 89 (or 62%) are new MPs, elected for the first time in 2010. All but one of the 10 most rebellious MPs is a Conservative.

That said, it would be wise for Sir George Young not to get too excited by this drop in the rate of rebellion. For one thing, the rate of rebellion is still high. Moreover, the decline is in large part a consequence of the large Lords Reform shaped hole in the government’s legislative programme. Were it not for the government pulling that bill, we would now be waist-deep in multiple rebellions, with another record-breaking session possible. Plenty of Conservative MPs will complain about the lack of legislation coming forward right now, as the government struggles to change the legislative agenda to compensate for the absence of Lords reform. And there’s plenty coming down the tracks with the potential to reignite things; it is striking that even having granted a free vote, the issue of gay marriage is causing real problems for the Conservative side. But when you are in trouble, you should be grateful for small mercies.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

We’ve been producing end-of-session reports detailing the rebellions of government backbenchers for several years now – but we’ve never had to produce one quite so large before.  The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions is available free of charge in pdf format (at the end of this post). It details every rebellion and every rebel. How much more fun could you want on a miserable Tuesday morning? But in case you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to look at more than 100 pages of info, here’s 20 key points about the behaviour of Coalition MPs in the last session.

1.      The last session saw 239 rebellions by Coalition MPs.  This is higher than the number of rebellions by government MPs in any other session in the post-war era.  Indeed, a figure of 239 is higher than in all but three entire post-war parliaments.  And there were more rebellions in the 2010-12 session than in the period from 1945-1966 combined, taking in 21 years, six parliaments and six Prime Ministers.

2.       In relative terms, measured as a percentage of the divisions in the session, there were rebellions by coalition MPs in 44% of divisions – also without precedent in the post-war era. By party, Conservative MPs broke ranks in 28% of votes, Lib Dems MPs have done so in 24%.

3.       Even these separate figures are very high by comparison with historic behaviour of government backbenchers.  The Conservative figure is higher than the rate of rebellion by government MPs in all but eight post-war sessions.  The Lib Dem rate of 24% is higher than that seen by government MPs in all but eleven post-war sessions.

4.       And compared with behaviour in other first sessions, the differences with this session are even more obvious, especially when compared to the first sessions of parliaments following a change in government.  Between 1945 and 1997, the six sessions immediately after a change in government saw rates of rebellion between zero (1964) and 6% (1979).  The current rate of rebellion is therefore more than seven times what had until now been the post-war peak for a first session after a change of government.

5.       A total of 153 Coalition MPs have voted against their whip thus far.  Most (119) of these are Conservatives, but this is not surprising, given that there have been more Conservative rebellions and there are anyway more Conservative MPs.

6.       Eight out of the top ten Coalition rebels are Conservatives.  The most rebellious Liberal Democrat MP is Mike Hancock, whose 44 rebellious votes place him sixth. Andrew George is the only other Lib Dem MP in the top ten.

7.       As a percentage of the total number of votes, the rates of rebellion of the most rebellious MPs are very high in relative terms: Philip Hollobone has been rebelling at a rate of roughly one rebellion in every five votes.  This is a much higher rate than, say, Jeremy Corbyn or Dennis Skinner, during the Blair or Brown premierships, and represents a serious fracture from the party leadership.

8.       What will especially concern the government whips is the behaviour of their newer MPs.  Of the 119 Conservative rebels, 71 (or six in ten) are from the new intake, and between them the newbie Tory rebels have cast a whopping 401 rebellious votes.

9.       Whilst numerically smaller, rebellion is much more widespread amongst the Lib Dems.  Whereas nearly one in four (39%) of Conservative MPs have rebelled, a total of 34 Lib Dems, or 60% of the parliamentary party, have now done so.

10.   The largest rebellion came in October 2011, over a motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.  A total of 82 Coalition MPs (81 of them Conservatives) defied a three-line whip to vote for the motion, another 14-19 abstaining.   It was not the largest backbench revolt since 1945, but it was one of the largest, topped on the Conservative side only a handful of revolts over gun control at the fag-end of the Major government.  It was also the largest rebellion on the issue of Europe of the post-war era.

11.   The largest Lib Dem rebellion came in December 2010 over the issue of university tuition fees. Twenty-one Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their whips, a further five Lib Dem MPs abstaining. It was the largest Liberal Democrat rebellion since the formation of the merged party in 1988-89 and as a proportion of the parliamentary party constituted a larger rebellion than did the Conservative rebellion over the European referendum.

12.   Yet although the frequency of rebellions is alarmingly high, the average rebellion is small, comprising just seven MPs. (The average Conservative rebellion is eight MPs, the average Liberal Democrat revolt is even lower at just three MPs).  This is one of the reasons why the government’s majority has not yet been seriously threatened as a result of a rebellion.

13.   The other reason is that these two groups of rebels rarely coalesce.  Almost half of rebellions (46%) have seen Conservative MPs rebel alone; just over a third (36%) have seen Lib Dem MPs rebel alone, and less than one in five (18%) have seen a rebellion by both Lib Dem and Conservative MPs.

14.   This is because the two groups generally rebel on very different issues.  Just over seven in ten (71%) of Lib Dem rebellions have been on social policy (broadly defined).  But nearly half (49%) of Conservative rebellions are on constitutional policy (broadly defined). Of this last category, a big chunk (nearly one in five of all Conservative rebellions) has been on Europe (18%), rebellions which are more than double the average size of all Conservative rebellions.

15.   The size of the Government’s majority is often not appreciated.  Even its formal majority of 76 is substantial.

16.   In reality, because of divisions in which Labour vote with the government or abstain, the average majority in practice has been an even larger 123.   In the majority of votes (411), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the government’s average majority has been 86.  But when Labour abstain (50 votes), the majority averages 268; and when Labour support the government (30 votes), the average majority rises to 392.

17.   There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there are fewer on which the Labour party would be willing to join them.  Overall, 21% of coalition rebellions occurred when Labour was not voting against the government – and when there was therefore no chance of a defeat.  But that figures rises to 31% of Conservative rebellions.

18.   The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats.  Lib Dem rebellions were more likely to take place when Labour was opposing the government, but because their backbench MPs number only 35, even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

19.   Parliamentary ambushes (like the one that caused the Coalition’s only defeat in December 2011) aside, for the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has happened rarely since May 2010, and the Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only 22 occasions in its first 24 months in power.

20.   But the Coalition’s two wobbly wings will require careful handling – with plenty of issues in the immediate future that will ensure continued high levels of Coalition dissent.

Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart