Burke will be spinning in his grave

The coverage of the Supreme Court appeal on Article 50 is very interesting (if you’re the sort of person who likes that sort of thing), and it is constitutionally very important (parliament versus the executive is not a trivial matter), but despite some of the more hysterical coverage it is not obvious that it will have any impact on whether Britain leaves the EU. If the government lose their appeal, as most people assume, and subsequently bring forward a bill to trigger Article 50, then it will pass. There may be a bit of fun and games over attempted amendments – and however tightly worded, and however restrictive the ‘long title’ is, there is always the potential for amendments – but given the various pledges that Labour have already given it’ll pass the Commons and the Lords easily enough.

When MPs vote on it, however, something curious will be happening. Prior to the referendum, roughly 75% of MPs were in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. When the bill is put before the House, I suspect around 75% of MPs (maybe more?) will vote in favour of Britain leaving. A decent number may abstain – unable to bring themselves to vote for the bill, but feeling unable to vote against it – but of those who vote, an overwhelming majority will back the bill.

For a variety of reasons (some good, some less good) MPs often vote in favour of things despite having doubts or concerns about what they are voting for. Plus, quite often MPs vote without really knowing much about what they are voting for – or sometimes (whisper it) without even knowing what the vote is on.

But this will be qualitatively different. When Article 50 is voted on in the Commons all MPs will know what they are voting on – and a majority of MPs will be voting for something despite being pretty certain in their own minds that this is a bad decision. Moreover, it is not just that they think it will have a below par or slightly sub-optimal outcome. Many (again, perhaps a majority?) will vote for it despite believing it to be a disastrous policy choice.

Of course, the reasons they will do so are obvious (having had a referendum, they feel they have to implement the outcome), and they may well be wrong in believing the outcome to be negative, but that the cause is so obvious shouldn’t blind us to the constitutional consequences. It is difficult to think of many – any? – comparable votes when the victorious majority in the Commons consisted of quite so many MPs who believe strongly they are voting the wrong way.

There are votes where the outcome might have been different if a genuinely free vote had been granted (Iraq, in 2003, perhaps, although since the Conservatives were supportive of military action, it is not quite so obvious), and on any very close vote won by the government, it is likely that there are some MPs who vote for the winning side despite doubts about the policy they are backing. But here we will be talking about up to three-quarters of MPs who vote for something despite it not being their preferred choice. I struggle to think of any comparable vote. Can you?

Philip Cowley  

Holyrood not all that different to Westminster Shock

Amidst the referendum madness, the sort of story that gets overlooked. The Herald has reported data on the composition of the Scottish Parliament in terms of their schooling – with the headline focussing on the percentage educated at private schools. This is the sort of data that takes longer to compile than some of the more easily accessible data on things like sex or ethnicity.

It reveals:

MSPs are now five times more likely than the average Scot to be privately educated….

Fully 20 per cent of politicians elected to Holyrood last month went to independent schools, up from 17 per cent last in the last parliament.

That compares with an average of around four per cent for the general population in Scotland and challenges the long-standing view that MSPs should be “representative” of those they represent.

What’s particularly nice about this particular research is that it also looks at the types of state schools MSPs went to, and they’re not all exactly Scumbag College (“Sixteen MSPs in total went to comprehensives currently ranked, by The Herald, as among the best performing state schools in the country”).

The piece notes that despite rising, the percentage of MSPs educated at private schools remains lower than the percentage of MPs at Westminster who had been so educated. But it also notes that much of the rise is due to the very different party make up in the 2016 Scottish Parliament compared to the one elected in 2011 – and, in particular, the rise in the number of Conservative MSPs, who tend to be more likely to have been educated at private schools.

But, of course, the party make up at Westminster is also different from that in Holyrood, which makes comparison between institutions problematic.

So what would the educational background of MSPs be, if the Scottish Parliament had the same party make up as the House of Commons? Let’s focus just on the four parties who are present in both parliaments with above single member representation: that is, Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

In the Commons, of the MPs from these four parties 33% were educated at private schools. In the Scottish Parliament, of the MSPS from these four parties 20% were educated at private schools. But, if the Scottish Parliament had the same party composition as the Commons – that is, a narrow Conservative majority, a largeish Labour opposition, a decent chunk of SNP MPs, a handful of Lib Dems – then the equivalent figure would be 32%, basically identical to the figure for Westminster.

Conversely, if Westminster had the same party make up as the Scottish Parliament – with SNP MPs making up almost half of the Commons, the Tories a distant second place, Labour third, and so on – then the equivalent figure for Westminster would be 20%, exactly the same as the current Scottish Parliament.

Now, obviously, the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have the same party make up as the Commons (I did notice that), and there is no likelihood of an SNP majority at Westminster (I also noticed that), but this is all a useful reminder that in compositional terms the heavy lifting is often done by the parties. In other words, what is different at Holyrood is the party make up, rather than because Holyrood is intrinsically different to Westminster.

Philip Cowley

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour whip

There is a long, and interesting, profile piece on Jeremy Corbyn in the latest New Yorker. It contains the claim that he voted against the whip on 428 occasions during Labour’s time in power.

This is a different figure from the one most often cited, of ‘more than 500 times’.

But it’s the right one.

How do I know? Because I calculated it for the author of the New Yorker piece, Sam Knight.

The problem with the figures usually cited for Corbyn’s voting are that they are derived from the (excellent) online vote aggregators, like The Public Whip. These are really impressive tools – which I use regularly – but they suffer from two flaws when it comes to calculating rebellions:

First, they count as rebellions votes where the MP is in a minority of their parliamentary group, but which were in fact free votes (this explains how, for example, Tony Blair is recorded as rebelling when in government). This has the effect of inflating the total number of rebellions.

Second, they exclude those occasions (rare in government, but more frequent in opposition), where a party’s line is to abstain but where a group of refusniks insist on voting. On such occasions the voting MPs appear cohesive, and so such occasions are not spotted as a rebellion. This has the effect of reducing the total number of rebellions.

So, at Sam’s request, I went back through Corbyn’s career, including the period before that covered by the data aggregators, focussing just on rebellions against the whip.

The total number of votes cast by Jeremy against the whip, from 1983 onwards is 617.

These are made up as follows:

1983: 19 – which made him the 8th most rebellious Labour MP

1987: 36 – 7th most rebellious Labour MP

1992: 72 – 3rd most rebellious Labour MP

1997: 64 – the most rebellious Labour MP

2001: 148 – the most rebellious Labour MP

2005: 216 – the most rebellious Labour MP

2010: 62 – 3rd most rebellious Labour MP

In other words, whilst Labour was in government, Corbyn was consistently the most rebellious Labour MP, rebelling a total of 428 times. In opposition, he was a little less rebellious, in both absolute and relative terms, but still consistently in the top 10 most rebellious Labour MPs.

Philip Cowley

Holidays in the Sun

I missed this when it came out, late last month.  The Observer had commissioned a survey into British attitudes and beliefs about Europe. You can read it here. It included a question about holiday destinations.

The reason that this was of interest was that some work Tim Bale, Anand Menon and I carried out of MPs’ attitudes to Europe had also involved a question about holiday destinations.

Alas, as is often the way, the questions were not worded identically. The Observer’s question asked about any holidays in the past five years and presented respondents with a list of the 27 other EU countries. Ours was an open-ended question, which was not just confined to EU countries, and although it too focussed on the last five years it asked MPs to list the three most recently visited countries.

But, for what it’s worth, the list of EU countries visited by MPs and public look remarkably similar.

Here are the top five holiday destinations of the public (on the left), and MPs on the right.

Public MPs
Spain 32% Spain 39%
France 30% France 30%
Italy 18% Italy 14%
Germany 13% Greece 9%
Greece 12% Germany 8%

Note: respondents could select more than one destination

In total, some 34% of the public listed no EU holiday in the last five years, compared to 22% of MPs. But because of the way The Observer posed the question we do not know whether this is because members of the public were more keen on holidays outside of the EU – America, Australia, and so on – or just had fewer holidays in general.  Simialrly, when the Observer claims to have found Remain supporters more likely to have visited an EU country on holiday than Outers (77% and 62% respectively) we don’t know if that is a genuine difference or whether it is caused by Outers being less likely to take foreign holidays. For what it’s worth, no such difference existed between Remain and Leave MPs, and we also did not find the difference that The Observer claimed with destinations (the favoured destination of Brexiters being Spain while Remain supporters are more likely to visit France); amongst MPs, Spain was the preferred destination of both.

Does this matter? Not hugely. But still, we’re always being told how the represented and those doing the representing lead such different lives, it’s worth pointing out when there are similarities. Here at least, ‘we’ are not that different to ‘them’.

Philip Cowley

The unusual cohesion of SNP MPs

There was a bit of a stushie earlier today in the Commons when the Labour MP John Woodcock described the SNP MPs as ‘robots’.

Let’s sidestep the issue with the nomenclature (Woodcock himself later changed it to ‘honourable robots’). It is certainly true that one feature of the SNP MPs elected in May has been their astonishingly high cohesion and/or discipline. (These two things are technically different, even if they often get conflated).

From the election in May until Monday, there had been 130 votes in the Commons.

I can only find divisions in the SNP MPs in seven of these, and of these, one is a free vote. The remainder see just a lone individual MP deviating from the pack – and some of these may not even be what they seem.

The free vote – and the only serious example of a split in the parliamentary party – came on the Second Reading of Assisted Dying Bill. It was an issue which divided all of larger parties, and the SNP was no different: 14 MPs voting yes, 11 no, and the rest absent or abstaining.

The other six cases all see a lone SNP MP voting when the rest of the SNP parliamentary party were absent from the voting lobbies. Such occasions are not recorded as ‘rebellions’ on sites such as The Public Whip, since there is cohesion within those voting – but there are plenty of occasions when a parliamentary group abstain and some MPs refuse to go along with such instructions).

Earlier this month, Alison Thewliss was recorded as voting during a vote on the House of Lords (Parliamentary Standards Etc) Bill. In October, Steven Paterson voted on Clause 3 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.  In July, Ian Blackford was recorded as voting for a private members bill on Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education in State Schools, and Richard Arkless voted on the Clause 32 of the Scotland Bill. In all cases, they were the only SNP MPs recorded as voting.

Slightly more curious is that earlier this week, in two consecutive divisions on the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill, SNP MPs appear to have acted as tellers, even though the rest of the parliamentary party were abstaining: Margaret Ferrier on one division, and Eilidh Whiteford on the other.  (The links gives the subject of these votes as on ISIL, but this is inaccurate).

Bitter experience teaches me to be slightly sceptical about lone MPs like this. They might be rebelling against their party line – there could, for example, be something about the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill that really fired up Steven Paterson – but equally they could be mistaken votes on the part of the MP or just mistakes by Hansard, the parliamentary record. (The latter are not common, but they are not so unusual as to be shocking). It is at least plausible that these are simply mistakes – and there has still not been a rebellion against the whip by an SNP MP.

And even if we take all six, and assume they are indeed conscious acts of rebellion against the party whip, we would still only be talking about a rebellion in under 5% of Commons divisions, and of never more than a lone MP. For good or ill, it is remarkable cohesion.

Philip Cowley 

 

 

New Politics, No Parties?

It now looks very likely that the Labour Party will give free votes to its MPs in the upcoming Commons votes on Trident renewal and possible air strikes in Syria.

The party is split on both issues, and in particular its new leadership is at odds with large numbers of MPs. Free votes are often granted when there are divisions like this within parties; splits are never as newsworthy when they take place on free votes. So the tactical reasons for having free votes are pretty obvious.

Free votes would also chime with the Corbyn leadership’s talk of a new way of doing politics. A potentially difficult division suddenly becomes a discussion, in which different points of view are encouraged. All very comradely.

But still, this is a pretty fundamental change in politics in this country. Free votes usually occur on issues which, even if important to those affected, are not widely seen as central to political life. They often involve some God, or a bit of bedroom, or some furry animals. Whatever your views on Syria or Trident, these are issues of a different magnitude.

Maybe this is the new politics – and maybe I’m just too stuck in the old ways of doing things to understand what’s happening (get with it, Daddio) – but this looks awfully like Her Majesty’s Official Opposition not having a stance on the best form of defence for the realm, or the type of military action required to defend British interests.

Because that is all the whip is: a stance. It is the party having a position.  It is why there is a qualitative difference between MPs rebelling against that position – which would almost certainly happen in either case, whatever stance the party took – and the party not having one in the first place.

One defence is to say that it is precisely because the issues are so important that a free vote needs to be granted. We often talk of issues of ‘conscience’, and what can be matter more to one’s conscience than matters of life and death like this. The trouble is that this phrase, ‘issue of conscience’ is vague and fuzzy, and doesn’t really mean very much. Almost all politics involves conscience at some levels.

What flows from this seems intriguing. If a party can opt out of having a stance on issues as crucial as these, how exactly can it justify having a collective stance on anything else? Is the party whip now only to be used for minor or unimportant issues? Or even more broadly, what exactly is the point of having political parties if they do not take stances on issues like this?

Philip Cowley

Corbyn and the whip

Have just recorded a radio interview on Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record. It’s fairly easy to sum up: he’s has always been rebellious. In the first parliament that he entered, in 1983, he was the sixth most rebellious Labour MP. From then on, he was always in the top ten, and between 1997 and 2010 he was the most rebellious. Over those 13 years in government, he defied the whip 428 times.  In the last five years, he dropped into second place but only just, one vote behind John McDonnell.

I was asked if he’d rebelled against specific leaders or specific policies. In terms of leaders, that’s Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.  And over certain issues? I once asked him what issues he would rebel on, and he was very clear that he didn’t rebel willy-nilly, only doing so over issues of war and peace, liberty and social-economic policy. I pointed out that this covered everything the government could possibly do.

Of course, for his admirers, this is evidence of integrity, independence, and ideological purity. His critics, by contrast, will see it as disloyalty, egotism and grandstanding. You pays your money, you takes your choice. It is perhaps worth asking how anyone so happy to defy the whip can expect others to follow it under their leadership – and this was a problem IDS faced after he became Conservative leader in 2001. On the other hand, Neil Kinnock managed to transform from 1970s backbench rebel to a fairly top-down 1980s Labour leader without too much difficulty.

Philip Cowley

Germans, magic carpets and chips: or how not to report the 56

Yesterday’s  Observer had a long piece on the 56 SNP MPs. I rarely do this, but it was so poor that I’ve written to the paper to complain about it. On the basis that they’ll probably not publish my letter, and even if they do, they’ll cut it (it’s too long), here it is:

Sir

The arrival of 56 SNP MPs at Westminster is one of the most significant parliamentary developments of the last 100 years. It deserves serious coverage. Alas, your extended profile (‘The SNP 56: a breath of fresh air… or a timebomb at the heart of Westminster?, 12 July 2015) was not serious.

We learnt that there are now lots more Scottish accents at Westminster. Presumably all those Labour and Lib Dem MPs previously representing Scottish constituencies spoke with German accents? SNP MPs apparently have long commutes to and from their constituencies, unlike all of their predecessors who presumably travelled by magic carpet. ‘They eat chips’, because it is a fact that chips were never served in any Westminster canteen until May. They ‘turn up’, because other MPs never ever do that.

You report the claim that because of the new SNP MPs, Westminster now has the highest number of openly gay and lesbian MPs anywhere in the world. But the Westminster parliament already held that record before the election in May. But to know this would have required research, and to report it would have challenged the entire thesis of the article.

You interview Stuart Donaldson, without noting that he is the son of a MSP – a minister in the Scottish government – as well as the grandson of an MP. Imagine interviewing, say, a new Conservative MP elected at the age of 23, who was the son and grandson of politicians. It takes nothing away from his astonishing achievement to note that you might have reported that slightly differently.

There are some really interesting questions about how such a large influx of MPs might change Westminster, how it might change them, even how they might in turn change the SNP. There are interesting questions about how the SNP MPs – who, like almost everyone, thought they would be the balance of power in a hung parliament – achieve change when facing a government with an overall majority. It would have been useful if the article had engaged properly with some of those.

Philip Cowley

Mum’s the word

There was a lot of fuss yesterday following Helen Goodman’s claim that she would be supporting Yvette Cooper for Labour leader, because Cooper had children (‘As a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life’), which was widely interpreted as a dig at Liz Kendall (who doesn’t have children). Leave aside whether such views are right or not; what do the voters think?

Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs and I recently looked into this, with an (as yet unpublished) paper on parenthood and politicians in the UK. And basically, children are an electoral advantage – and it would appear that British politicians know that.

We found clear evidence that politicians with children tended to receive higher evaluations than those without.  We also found that most MPs who are parents make reference to their children on their websites, so we suspect they are intuitively aware of the advantage that this gives them.  But the effects are not uniform.  In particular, we found that women politicians without children are punished more for their lack children than male politicians in a similar position. The effect of this is not massive, but it is consistent, and could matter in close electoral races.

Philip Cowley

Postal voters – and fibbers

Although we talk about polling day, the widespread use of postal voting means that there are now multiple polling days in British general elections. In 2015, postal votes began to be issued around 13 April, as the parties’ manifestos were being published.

As part of the work for The British General Election of 2015, I thought it would be good to know when people actually voted. The fifth wave of the British Election Study has a question specifically asking people if they have a postal vote, and if they have, whether they have used it.

The fifth wave of the BES is a campaign wave, which polls c.600-800 people each day, which allows us to see when people start to say they have used their postal vote. If you just take the % of respondents who say they have voted by post each day during the campaign, you get this graph.

Postal votes

Each data point is a separate poll, which explains why the values can go down as well as up, day-on-day. (Obviously, the cumulative percentage of actual people to have voted by post can only go up, day-on-day).*

The graph shows a clear take off in postal voting from about day 22 of the campaign (that is, 20 April). So postal votes may have started to go out from around 13 April, but by the time they had arrived, and people had prevaricated a bit (left them on the kitchen table, had a ponder, tried to understand the instructions and so on) – it was about nine days later that people started to fill them in and send them back. (And, of course, not all councils will have been quite so organised to get the votes sent out on 13 April). In practice, therefore, most postal voting took place over the last 16 days, or just over two weeks, of the campaign.

The second interesting thing about the graph is all the people who claimed that they had voted by post when it was not simply possible for them to have done so. The percentage saying they had voted by post should be zero for the first 13 days of the campaign, rather than being between 3-6%. It’s a good reminder that some people can fail to recall accurately even the most straight-forward things about their voting.

Philip Cowley

* Technically, this isn’t true: if people were registering to vote at a faster rate than people with postal votes were using them, then the % of people who’d voted by post could decline. The deadline for the former was 20 April, however, around the time people started postal voting in earnest, so we can safely rule it out.