On paper, it’s 76. Those with some knowledge of way Westminster works in practice will have remembered to add in the five non-sitting Sinn Fein MPs, plus the Speaker and his Deputies, which takes it past 80. The really sharp amongst you might mention that the eight DUP MPs usually (though not always) vote with the government, which would take you to close to 100.
But the average majority in practice has been a whopping 142 – and we bet no one thought it was that. That’s the mean average in the 306 whipped votes to have taken place since the election; we’ve excluded the 25 occasions when Coalition MPs were given a free vote.
The first clue to working out what’s going on is to note that the figure of 142 is the mean average. The median average is a much less surprising 94. This suggests that there are some very high outlier figures, dragging up the mean average – and indeed that’s what happening.
The key factor is the behaviour of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Most of the time (some 238 votes so far), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the average majority is 91 (with a median of 87). But when Labour abstain (44 votes), the majority averages 270 (median: 276); and when Labour support the government, the average majority rises to 421 (median: 450). (The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that these numbers don’t sum to 306 – because there was one vote when the government was whipped, but Labour allowed a free vote).
The most striking example of this occurred on 21 March this year when the Government won a vote endorsing military action in Libya by 557 votes to 13, thanks to the support of the Labour frontbench, producing the largest Coalition majority so far this Parliament of 544.
Another good example of huge Coalition majorities occurred during the passage of the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill, which was discussed on the Floor of the House of Commons in March 2011. As reported in The Independent, Conservative MPs complained bitterly to their whips at having to stay late to vote on divisions where the Government was enjoying massive Commons majorities. The Independent calculated that the Government’s day-to-day majority between January and March 2011 was 150, and it had enjoyed a margin of more than 250 in 24 out of 75 votes. What the story didn’t point out, however, was that this was because most amendments on the Scotland Bill were being put by SNP MPs, and that the Labour frontbench chose in almost all occasions to join the Coalition in opposing them in the no lobby. This factor on the particular Bill, more than any other, contributed to the high Government majorities in the first quarter of this year.
The consequences for any government backbench rebellion succeeding should be obvious. On paper, it would take 39 Coalition MPs to rebel to defeat the Government – but only if the Labour frontbench was to vote with the rebels. There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there aren’t as many on which the Labour party would be willing to join them. That is not to say that it won’t happen at some point in the future, merely that it is not likely to happen very often.
The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats. Their backbench MPs number only 35, so even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.
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 been happening rarely since May 2010. The Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only six occasions in its first fifteen months in power.
But it can happen. On 9 December 2010, over university tuition fees, 21 Liberal Democrat rebels combined with six Conservative backbenchers, the Labour frontbench and the minor parties, reducing the Government’s majority to 21, which remains the lowest Coalition majority thus this Parliament.
The Coalition not only has a stable working majority on paper, but also a very high average day-to-day working majority in practice.
This was one of the conclusions of a paper given at the recent Elections, Public Opinion and Parties conference, held at Exeter University. The full slides from the presentation are downloadable here; all the data are correct as of the start of the summer recess. This updates, and replaces, the earlier slides we uploaded in July.