Why would you want to sleep with your MP?

At 16 you can have sex with your MP – but you can’t vote for them! This claim is made in an article today by Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs. It’s a memorable line – and it’s true. But it’s not really very helpful in helping decide whether to lower the voting age of not.
The article also repeats the frequently-made claims about being eligible to pay tax, get married or even join the army at 16. Just for the record: you can pay tax at any age; you can get married at 16, although in England and Wales you require parental permission to do so; and whilst you can join the armed forces before 18, you (again) need parental permission, plus you are not supposed to serve on the frontline until 18.
Some people think the claim about being able to have sex with your MP is not true – because you are not allowed to have sex with someone in a position of trust until you are 18. But the Sexual Offences Act 2003 doesn’t include MPs in this category, so this doesn’t apply – although it is worth noting, in passing, that in the event a crime had been committed, any jury would not include any 16 year olds – because the law says they’re too young.
So it is true that you could have sex with your MP at 16, but not vote for them. But when trying to woo them, you also couldn’t buy them a drink. You couldn’t purchase post-coital cigarettes, and you certainly couldn’t drive them home afterwards. If you wanted – literally – to celebrate with a bang, you couldn’t buy a firework. And if you wanted to bronze up before taking your clothes off, you couldn’t go into a tanning booth.
There may be arguments for lowering the franchise, but this one is spectacularly bad.

Philip Cowley

Election photos wanted

Dennis Kavanagh and I are now heads down to complete The British General Election of 2017 (or what we fear may end up being called The Many British General Elections of 2017), to be published by Palgrave next year. It’s the latest in a series of books dating back to 1945, the longest-running national election series in the world. Based on the events of last week, and some of the material we have, it’s going to be a cracker!

As with the last book, we’d like to include some pictures of the election as it actually was for those doing the grunt work of the ground campaign: knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, holding street stalls, public meetings and so on.  Anyone who has such pictures and would like their work immortalised in the book, please just drop me a line, at p.cowley@qmul.ac.uk. (And yes, I know I could look through twitter and find pictures – but I need both higher res copies and your permission…).

Alas, we can’t pay – academic books just don’t have the budget – but in return for any we use, I’ll send a free copy of the book.  Plus, your efforts will live on forever in print.

Parliamentary petitions (and why it’s not just about Brighton and Bristol West)

Every time there’s a high-profile parliamentary petition attracting lots of signatures, people will point out how certain places seem disproportionately likely to have got involved: Brighton Pavilion (the UK’s only Westminster constituency to have returned a Green MP), Bristol West (the closest thing to Brighton outside of Brighton), or various leftish places in North London. Far from genuinely tapping into British public opinion, the system seems to have been captured by bien pensants.

Here’s some work in progress to test whether this is fair comment or not. Much of the data vizulisation was done by Mark Edwards; the data scraping required was carried out by Chris Hanretty. I mostly ponced around issuing instructions and making banal observations – but given that this approach has worked alright for me so far in my career so I see no need to change now.

The first stage was to work out which constituencies in Britain had indeed signed most – and least often. We took the first 6257 closed petitions on the Parliament website. This produces a map like this, although there is an interactive map, allowing you to zoom in and so on, here.

When you do this, you do indeed discover that Bristol West is the petition capital of Britain, closely followed by Brighton Pavilion, which in turn is closely followed by lots of places in London. Of the ten constituencies to have signed most petitions, seven are in London, plus Brighton Pavilion, Bristol West and Cambridge…). So that complaint isn’t entirely unfair.

There’s loads that you can do with this data – most obviously to identify whether there are types of constituencies that sign more or less – and we’ll do much of this shortly, but the other thing this does is provide a baseline to identify whether other current petitions are typical or not. In other words, once you’ve worked out which places sign most in general, you can then compare their behaviour on specific petitions.

When you do this, you discover that some of the current popular petitions are indeed basically the usual suspects. Here’s the petition not to give Donald Trump a state visit, for example, compared to the previous behaviour in those constituencies.

But not all. Here’s one on capping car insurance premiums for young people. This really fires up people in seats like Blackburn or Oldham West and Royton, whereas Bristol West just gives a collective shrug.

Or take this one, on air drops for Syria, which also fires up a very different type of constituency. This really motivated people in places like Birmingham, Hodge Hill, Bradford West, Ilford South, East Ham and Birmingham, Hall Green, seats which normally rarely generate large numbers of signatures. (If you can’t work out why that might be, you should abandon politics as a subject).

Mark has made a useful tool allowing anyone to compare any of the current popular petitions with past behaviour. Feel free to play.

Philip Cowley

An imaginary Conservative MP speaks

One highlight over the Christmas period was a tweet from the Jeremy for Labour twitter account, which claimed: ‘A Tory MP tells us: “If Labour MPs rally behind Corbyn, we’d be in real trouble. We owe our survival to Blairites.”’

I suspect I’ve talked to more Conservative MPs than the people behind this account, and yet I’ve never heard anything like this. The same – judging from their reaction – would appear to be true of, to take just a few examples, one of the editors of the Conservative Home website or the political editor of the Sunday Times. They also talk to quite a few Conservative MPs, and yet do not appear to have heard many articulate this view.

Maybe this one Conservative MP normally observes omerta, but has blurted out their feelings to the (apparently anonymous) people behind this twitter account. It is, just about, possible – although if you are the sort of person who believes things like this, then I have a bridge to sell you.

For what it’s worth, based on my conversations with them, I see no evidence that Conservative MPs are scared by Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn, united or not. Bluntly, most can’t believe their luck. If there are fears, it is that some of the less tribal ones worry about the effect of having a weak opposition on the quality of politics. And there are some – again, the less tribal ones – who worry that a landslide Tory majority at the next election might not be good for the country either.

After Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, a few had a concern that, just somehow, in an era in which the unexpected seems possible, he might just ride an anti-establishment wave to Number 10, with what they feared would be disastrous consequences for the country – but electorally this was worth the risk, since the chance of it happening seemed so small.

I was saying most of this back in late-2015 and the only thing that has changed since then is that as Labour’s poll ratings have plummeted, so the fears of this last group have receded yet further.

Of course, some Conservative MPs will admit that if Labour could cohere around the Corbyn leadership, then the government might face a tougher time than it currently does. But a) they don’t think the sole reason that this is not happening is because of the ‘Blairites’ (if Mr Corbyn’s problems really were confined just to Blairites, things would be a lot easier…), and b) even if Labour somehow managed to unite, most Conservative MPs think the Corbyn project is intrinsically flawed. Life for the government might be tougher under such hypothetical circumstances, but most Conservative MPs don’t think they’d be in ‘real trouble’.

It is possible that these Conservative MPs are all wrong. MPs are often wrong about electoral matters; a majority thought Remain would win the referendum, for example. Anyway, presumably most people on the left think Conservative MPs are wrong about lots of other things, so it is not exactly clear why they want to pray them in aid here. Maybe they are going to get the shock of their lives come the general election. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, for those on the left wedded to the Corbyn project, it is surely more sensible to argue that they are wrong, rather than making up imaginary Conservative MPs.

Philip Cowley

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