This article was first published by bloc, a left leaning political forum based in Yorkshire. As always, my thanks to them for supporting my writing.
This article is inspired, in part, by comments made by a Chris Bryant MP at a recent conference on the relevance of Magna Carta to modern democracy.
Voting data was drawn from The Public Whip (http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/), a not-for-profit, open source website created in 2003 by Francis Irving and Julian Todd and now run by Bairwell Ltd. Data was collected in August 2015, and was correct at time that time. Given the nature of parliamentary process, this is inevitably subject to change. It should also be noted that this was written prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as labour leader, and the resultant shadow cabinet reshuffle.
I am sure we all agree that politicians should vote as their conscience and their constituencies direct. They are our elected representatives, and should be free to do that. The ideal of a free parliament has been an established in British political theory for centuries. But this freedom is slowly being worn away. My great grandmother, Evelyn Emmet was a Conservative MP, and later a peer. Elected in 1955, she was involved in politics until her death in 1980, serving as a deputy speaker of the House of Lords from 1968-1977. She spoke with disdain of a shift in the way parties controlled their MPs via the whip system, which became increasingly strict. Direct instructions to specific MPs are not allowed of course, so the party’s wishes are expressed unequivocally but indirectly. At one end of the scale is the ‘one-line’ whip – simple advice on the party line – whereas a three-line whip is a strict instruction, breach of which might lead to expulsion from the party (though precise information on these rules and repercussions is not available to the general public). During my great grandmother’s time in politics, standard instructions shifted from the moderate to the more severe, with the one-line whip becoming a rare beast.
But this article is not going to focus on whip, primarily because it is very hard to get concrete information on them. Sites such as The Public Whip do not have the information, nor are MPs vocal about it. The weekly briefing on votes (also, confusing called the Whip) is confidential, and when I mentioned the matter within a letter to my constituency MP it received no reply. The party whips will continue to operate from the shadows, unless we can secure the publication of the weekly Whip briefing. But that is a challenge for another day. Instead, I will focus on the general freedom of MPs to as they see fit and to rebel against the party.
Between them, the Conservative and Labour Parties hold 582 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons – 330 Conservative MPs and 232 Labour MPs. This means that just under 90% of the votes will tend to follow one of two, predictable party lines. On core issues, where the whip is likely to be strong, 90% of the votes can be predicted with reasonable reliability beforehand. Given the Conservative majority, it is therefore likely that, on the issues most fundamental to their party, the government will be able to push their legislation through the Commons. The Lords is more complex – the government does not have a majority, the make-up is more mixed, and includes the cross-bench peers with no party affiliation – however in the commons it is the case that, for their core policies, the government is likely to win the day.
More interesting are the votes on less fundamental issues where the whip is likely to be weaker. Of course, information on Whipping is not made public. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see the Public Whip FAQ (http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/faq.php). All we can do, therefore, is consider information on all votes as if they were the same, and consider average voting records. Public Whip makes available the voting records of members going back to 1997 (though data from before the last election can be challenging to use – I speak from experience here), including the percentage of votes in which they voted differently to majority of voting members of their party. Voting against the majority of your party is deemed to be a rebellion. This is not a perfect system for reckoning rebellions – it doesn’t account for free votes, or for cases where the party line was to abstain (as was the case for the recent welfare reform bill, in which 47 Labour MPs actively opposed the bill). These 47 rebels are not recorded as such, because they represented the entirety of the party’s voting members. Despite these flaws, one can still do a substantial amount with it as bulk data. While the information that Adam Afriyie (Conservative MP for Windsor) apparently rebelled in 2.1% of votes in this parliament is not particularly reliable (for the reasons outlined above) or particularly informative (given the small number of votes in this parliament so far), we can draw some interesting correlations if we take the data en masse, allowing for a certain margin of error.
In the 2015 parliament, the Conservative party secured 331 seats. These 331 MPs have rebelled, on average, in 0.4% of votes – not a particularly high number. Furthermore, the 90 front bench MPs (i.e. a little under 1/3 of Conservative MPs) have never rebelled at all. All rebellion has been confined to the back bench, with an average rate of 0.5%. In fact, only 42 MPs have rebelled at all, with an average rate of 2.9%. In other words, only 12.7% of Conservative MPs have rebelled in this partliament, and they have done so in just under three votes in every 100. It is unlikely that 87.3% of Conservative MPs agree with all party policy, people being inherently diverse, so we must assume that many MPs choose not to rebel against the party line, when they might actually disagree with the official policy.
A similar (albeit less pronounced) picture emerges when looking at the voting records of Labour MPs since May. The party average for rebelling is a measly 0.1% – that is one vote in every 1000 cast by party MPs. Again, none of the Labour Shadow Cabinet have been rebels in the last parliament, nor have any of the three Labour MPs with Knighthoods. Only eight MPs are recorded as rebels, on average in 2.8% of votes.
First of all, it is clear that only a few MPs are willing to rebel against their party. Although it is axiomatic that party policy is likely to match the views of its members, factors such as the distinctive needs of local constituencies and personal ideology will inevitably mean that MPs’ views do not always match party policy. Disagreements may be insignificant, few and far between, but given the diversity of the country, and the breadth of different views held by party members (as evident in the recent resurgence of a more socialist side of Labour), it is impossible that a party can perfectly represent the views of everyone. I am not a perfect judge of human nature, but I find it hard to believe that only 0.1% of Labour Party policy faces internal opposition, or that 289 Conservative MPs agree with every aspect of party policy voted on in this parliament.
We must, therefore ask why MPs are willing to compromise their views. This can be explained by a sense of duty to their party, which could be stronger than their sense of duty to their constituents or to their consciences. Parties are constructed as a means of collectivisation. It is far easier to get your voice heard if you join it with others, and it is certainly the case that rebellions damage the unity of a party, and undermine its collective voice and leadership. This can therefore provide one reason not to rebel, especially on issues which are not especially important, but this of course undermines the extent to which the diversity of opinion amongst the population people are represented.
More significantly, choosing to be a rebel against the party Whip can be damaging to an individual MP. It is notable that all Conservative rebels are backbenchers, as are the majority of labour rebels. There is a clear inverse relationship between seniority and likelihood of rebellion. Given that rebellion can be damaging to the reputation of the party, rebels are less likely to gain high profile positions (a notable exception to this rule is the newly announced shadow cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn, see http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/sep/14/jeremy-corbyn-labour-shadow-cabinet-statistical-breakdown). Similarly, it is highly unlikely that an MP would rebel once a significant role is gained as it would threaten their position come the next reshuffle. It is sometimes hard to tell what is cause and what is effect – if you are a rebel, you wont be promoted; if you are promoted, you will be less likely to rebel – but the two are certainly linked. The natural conclusion of this is that those MPs looking for career advancement and the quarter of MPs who sit on the front benches are not truly free vote as their consciences and constituents direct.
There is another problem inherent to the prevailing view of rebellion as something which will damage the party as a whole. Because it is seen in a negative light and prevents the party passing the policy it would like to see, repercussions against rebels are likely to be harsh, in an attempt to discourage others. Much of government is run on informal conversations and agreements with informal networks and relationships developing, based on favours and mutual support. In the later middle ages, a system known as bastard feudalism developed (so called because it was initially seen as a degradation of traditional land-based feudal ties). In bastard feudalism, rather than owing money or service to a lord in exchange for land, systems of patronage developed. Higher elites would help advance the careers of those below them, who in return offered service to their lords on an ad hoc basis. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will have seen bastard feudalism at work, as the career of Thomas Cromwell is gradually progressed through his service to Cardinal Wolsey and later Henry VIII. In turn, Cromwell is able to offer ‘good lordship’ to people in his service such as Thomas Wriothesley and Rafe Sadler. Such bonds were never formal, and could be broken and reforged, but it was in the interests of all parties to maintain mutually beneficial relationships. The modern political landscape is eerily similar to this.
The ability of an MP to win concessions for his constituents, or have significant influence at Westminster can depend on this sort of informal relationship, but rebellion, even if it is in the best interests of the people the MP is paid to represent, is generally seen as a bad thing by other members and especially by the whips. This means rebellion can damage an MP’s relationships with their colleagues, it can even lead to their being ‘sent to Coventry’, or otherwise isolated or punished by the whips. Leading MPs wont rebel, and those who do will be less able to get their voices heard subsequently. The idea that MPs are really free in how they vote is clearly false.
Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. Among Conservative MPs, the 18 members with knighthoods are the most rebellious, with an average rate of rebellion of 1.2%. Of the 18, 5 have been rebels since May 2015, with an average rate of rebellion 4.3%, far high than the rate of rebellion for all rebels, which stands at 2.9%. Meanwhile, in the Labour Party, two front-benchers both of them Whips – Tom Blenkinsop and Heidi Alexander – have been rebels. These are senior party members, people who should be worried about rebelling, as it could damage their relationships of mutual support with their colleagues, and damage their political capital. However, these exceptions only prove the rule, they do not undermine it. Knighthoods cannot be easily revoked, and none of the knighted rebels are front-benchers. They have all been rewarded for their services (not necessarily to politics), but none now sit in the party spotlight. If they are not seeking prominence, then the loss of political capital which results from rebellion will not bother them. If anything, their titles give them permanent authority, which might encourage them to rebel more than their more vulnerable colleagues. Likewise, the two labour Whips are less vulnerable, because of their roles. They are responsible for controlling other voters, but they themselves do not need to be scared.
Despite all this, rather like the British prison system, parliament has a reoffending problem. Once a member has broken ranks once, there is a tendency to do so again. This does not make itself evident in the data for this parliament, as there have been too few votes to draw conclusions, however if one considers Labour rebels in this parliament, it is a small thing to note that every one of them rebelled in the last parliament as well, and half of them did so on more than 10 occasions. Once the beneficial relationships have been damaged, an MP has little incentive not to continue to rebel against party wisdom. At least then they might be seen as an idealist by their party.
Throughout this piece, I have referred to Public Whip’s data for rebellion, which suggests Labours rate of rebellion is substantially lower than that of the Conservatives, possibly indicating that the Labour Whips are more powerful than their conservative counterparts. However, the data for Labour’s rebels doesn’t account for the mass rebellion of Labour MPs over the Welfare Reform Bill. On this matter, the party line was one of abstention, however 47 members broke ranks and actively opposed it. Because Public Whip identifies the party line as the way most members have voted, these votes do not appear as rebellions. This means that, rather than only 8 rebels, the party in fact has some 52 rebels, of which 4 are front-benchers. Thus, the number of Labour and Conservative rebels is of a similar order of magnitude (52 and 42 respectively), suggesting the Whips are similarly powerful.
It is clear that, as party seniority increases, likelihood of rebellion falls (in all but a few exceptional cases), and that having chosen to rebel once, a member is likely to do so again. The obvious reason for this is that rebelling seriously undermines the informal relationship which MPs to influence policy, and is strictly punished in order to maintain a party’s public face. Given the plethora of senior positions (for example 90 Conservative front-benchers out of 330 MPs), it is increasingly clear that the vast majority of MPs are not free to vote with their conscience, even if the whipping is not especially strong. Of course, we have limited data available from this parliament, and part two of this article will explore data from the 2010-15 parliament, to see if these correlations hold up. But for now, one thing is clear. When political capital depends upon following the party, we cannot reasonably believe that MPs can vote freely. The freedom of parliament is one of the great myths of British politics. We must either work to change this, or accept come to terms with the reality of a parliament which is not truly free.