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:


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.

Voters wrong, but still revealing

As part of the preparation for The British General Election of 2015, I have been playing around with the latest wave of the British Election Study data, which is from the short campaign.

There is a question about whether a party had a ‘real chance’ of being in government or not, ‘either forming a government by itself or as part of a coalition’. The question isn’t brilliantly worded – it rules out other ways in which parties might be involved in government, such as confidence and supply agreements – but for all its flaws, responses to the question are still revealing.

The question asked about parties that had ‘no real chance’ of being in government. The figure for both Labour and Conservative was 3%. Almost everyone could see they had a chance. For the Lib Dems, it was 18%. Most people thought they had a chance.

The figure for the SNP was 23%, only marginally higher than that for the Lib Dems. So most people (71%, with the remainder saying they didn’t know) thought there was a real chance of the SNP being in government after the election. Technically, according to the wording of the question, all 71% are simply wrong. The SNP were never going to be in government as part of a coalition (both they and Labour had ruled that out, and they had ruled out doing any deal with the Conservatives), but there were other ways in which they might have influenced things had there been the hung parliament almost everyone expected, and what this is showing is that people thought the SNP might be involved in government, somehow.

For comparison, the figure for UKIP is 37%, then Plaid (59%) and the Greens (60%).

Labour were desperate during the campaign to rule out any deals with the SNP. It’s pretty clear that this didn’t work.

Voters also understood that if there was a deal involving the SNP it was much more likely to involve Labour than the Conservatives. A different question – again, unfortunately not well-worded – asked about parties that would be willing to join a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives. Some 89% of voters who had a view thought the SNP would be willing to join with Labour, just 18% said with the Conservatives. Again, technically, all of these voters are wrong – since coalitions with either were not on the table – but the responses do at least show voters understood that the SNP was more likely to engage with Labour than the Conservatives.

% of respondents who say the SNP had no chance of being in government after the election, by day of campaign

No chance of SNP being in government

If anything, the perception that the SNP might play a role in government increased during the campaign. This graph (above) shows the % of respondents, by day of response, who felt that the SNP had ‘no real chance’ of being in government. (The sample size of the BES is so large that each of these daily sub-samples is  c.600-800 respondents). Labour spent the campaign playing down the chance of the SNP being involved, the Tories playing it up. Very slightly – but still clearly – the Tories won that battle.

Philip Cowley

Clapping, as a cure for impotence

Perhaps the key defining feature of the general election was that almost nothing happened as we had expected. Even in Scotland, where the result was broadly what had been predicted by the polls (though as Andrew Marr wrote, ‘anybody who stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and bought a latte would have picked that up’), the consequences were different. The SNP thought that they were going to hold the balance of power at Westminster. They were going to lock out David Cameron and the Conservatives, and demand constant concessions Ed Miliband. Instead, they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of a small, but workable, Conservative majority. Ahead there are five years of heckling the steamroller.

Of course, they will do all the things that opposition parties can do to try to constrain the government, and they might occasionally score hits. Between 2005 and 2010, the Lib Dem group of MPs was slightly larger than the SNP group is today, and they had their moments – the Ghurkhas being the most obvious one – but it was hardly a record of massive political influence. Even with this smaller majority, to defeat the government you need issues which can unite the SNP and Labour and Tory rebels, and they’ll be harder to find than you think. Yes, they’ll sit on committees, but even where they chair them they will have to work with other parties to achieve anything, and anyway, the government will have a majority there too. They’ll do all the worthy constituency work – which will take up a much larger proportion of their time than they realise. (I suspect some of the ostentatious sitting in the chamber seen so far will soon go out of the window once the postbags start to build up). Like all MPs, some will do that well, some less well but (like all MPs) it’ll take up a lot of their time, and they won’t get much thanks for it. And yes, they’ll get two questions a week at PMQs, but ask Nick Clegg or Ming Campbell how easy it is to make a mark there.

This isn’t to say that the SNP contingent won’t achieve anything, just that, bluntly, they probably won’t achieve much in policy terms. And that is not how they need their time at Westminster to be seen.

This helps explain many of the recent antics – the clapping in the chamber, the row over seats, and so on. True, the SNP don’t want to be seen as wreckers and irresponsible. They want to be taken seriously, with an eye on next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. So it can’t all be about seating and clapping. But seating and clapping is a good start, and an easy way of demonstrating making a difference. There is an obvious risk that it gets presented negatively: a bit petty, childish, trivial. But it is easy enough to present all of these acts rather as ‘shaking up Westminster’, ‘doing politics differently’, ‘challenging the establishment’.

They’re helped in this by the fact that in Scottish political discourse Westminster has ceased to be a geographic location. It is where ‘they’ are, where everything is wrong, broken, and in need of change. And they’re helped by the current status of Scottish politics – where even if Nicola Sturgeon was filmed drowning kittens, there would be people claiming that the kittens were in the employ of MI5, and anyway, drowning kittens was actually a progressive thing to do. Anyone who doubts how this sort of stuff plays to SNP supporters should look at #the56 on Twitter.

There’s also a second benefit to all of this, too easily overlooked. The expansion of the SNP from six Westminster MPs to 56 in one election is the largest sudden growth of any party since the emergence of the Home Rule League in 1874. (They went from zero to 60, as a result of the introduction of the secret ballot). The SNP party managers have taken a group of extremely inexperienced MPs, 50 49 of whom are new to Westminster, and have already inculcated in them a sense of esprit de corps. Even before the Queen’s speech, they had something to do, helping to build up a bit of them-and-us mentality, a bit of no-one-likes-us, we-don’t-care attitude, which will do no harm. It would be easy to get sucked into Westminster, and to achieve only marginally more than nothing. Less than a month into the parliament, they have already made their mark. I described this recently as ‘gestures’, and got complaints that I was being negative. But it wasn’t meant to be negative: gestures can be important.

Philip Cowley

UPDATE: In a piece of top-grade pedantry, John Shand pointed out that ‘only’ 49 of the MPs are new to the Commons – since included in the 50 is the retread Member for Gordon. So have amended.

Election pictures wanted!

Dennis Kavanagh and I are rushing to complete The British General Election of 2015, to be published by Palgrave in October. 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 material we have, it’s going to be a cracker!

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

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.

Philip Cowley

Politics and the moon landings (and other subjects)

One of the standard bits of advice to young academics is to specialise: find a niche, and make it yours. That way you get known for being the expert in something. Only an idiot publishes like a scattergun, across a range of subjects.

I have obviously not followed this strategy myself during the last few months, in the short campaign and just before, by publishing short articles on:

The parliamentary constituencies that football grounds are located in

How we think people are more unattractive if they are involved in politics

The first election forecasting competition – of 1924

How people see the trade-off between wanting coherent policy and just wanting to send a signal when they vote

The most rebellious parliament of the post-war era

How it’s the numbers that will determine who gets into Number 10

How many Brits believe the moon landings were faked

Four things you need to know about post-election scenarios

Why the election is different

The origins of Thatcherism – and of the term Thatcherism

And how Pathe covered elections in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s

 Philip Cowley