Source: Mike Smithson, Politicalbetting.com
The Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – the Bill to introduce civil marriage for same sex couples – comes before the House of Commons today. Here are five things to think about:
1. If things go as expected, the vote will be one of the rare occasions when the split in the House of Commons (roughly) equals that in the public. Not only will there be an overall majority in favour – as most polls indicate there is amongst the public – but the splits within the parties will be broadly similar to those of their supporters (as in the graph above). The Lib Dems and Labour will be broadly in favour, with the Conservatives being very deeply split. Some estimates are that the Conservatives will split right down the middle – with around 120 voting yes, 120 voting no, and 60 being absent – a similar split to that of Conservative voters. So this issue will divide MPs pretty much as it divides the public, not something you could say of, for example, abortion, where the deep party splits in the Commons are not present amongst the general public.
2. There’s nothing unusual about deep splits over issues like this. For those asking, can you ever remember an occasion when a Prime Minister was in charge of such a divided party, we say: you bet we can. In 2004, on a free vote, Tony Blair went into a lobby to oppose an outright ban on fox hunting with just 24 of his MPs (8% of those to vote); in the other lobby were the remaining 92% of Labour MPs. Compared to that, the split currently seen on the Tory benches right now looks mild.
3. What is unusual therefore is not the intra-party divisions themselves – but the venom that appears to be accompanying them among Conservative MPs, given that this is being decided by a free vote and no one is being whipped to take up a position they oppose. Free votes normally take the poison out of arguments like this; it’s one of the very reasons they get used. Of course, many of those who oppose the measure are upset/angry/annoyed because they know that the make-up of the Commons means that they will almost certainly lose and see the Bill passed; but many of them are also people who talk a lot about the importance of Parliament being sovereign, and able to make decisions, which is what is happening here.
4. Free votes are usually seen as one of life’s good things – the shackles taken off MPs, who are allowed to vote with their conscience, and so on. In 2006 the Guardian made free votes the subject of one of its ‘In Praise of…’ leaders (‘they allow MPs to show individual responsibility and to rise above their role as lobby fodder – and that can only be good for parliamentary democracy’) after the government allowed free votes on its Smoking Bill. This time, however, there has been considerable pressure on the Labour Party, in particular, to apply a whip to the issue, activists arguing that the party should take a stance on the issue rather than effectively opt out, and being annoyed when the party decided not to do so. There’s a lot to this argument. The line between what is and is not an ‘issue of conscience’ suitable for a free vote has always been ill-defined and amorphous (often owing much to calculations of party advantage than anything else) and in a party-centred political system in which voters know little about the views of individual candidates and where MPs divide down party lines, even when the whip is off, having free votes on high profile issues like this has always been problematic. They have often allowed political elites to pass policy with which the general public was not in agreement, without much accountability being involved. Indeed, for many, especially on the liberal/progressive wing, that was part of the appeal. Making these issues part of a political dividing line between the parties, however, may not be as straight-forward as it seems. It may work on gay marriage (where the public broadly share the views of those in favour), but it could cause real problems on issues such as abortion.
5. Note, however, that having a free vote at Second Reading does not mean having repeated free votes throughout the Bill’s passage. Even today, we expect the government to whip the programme motion timetabling the bill – and on which there may well be a decent-sized Conservative rebellion – and then to whip much of the rest of the Bill’s passage, certainly amendments that might be seen as undermining (‘wrecking’) the nature of the Bill. So we expect lots more trouble on the Conservative benches as the Bill works its way through the Commons.