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