Michael Gove must be a genius. In the last session, the government’s majority averaged 102. In the five Commons votes since Gove became Chief Whip it has averaged 416. It has never fallen below 387, and has risen as high as 467. In his first day in office, he appears to have multiplied the government’s majority by a factor of four.
It is (of course) nothing to do with Michael Gove – who may turn out to be a great Chief Whip, or he may turn out to be a lousy one, who knows? – but because those five votes have all involved the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, rushed through the Commons in a day, enjoying support from the Official Opposition., and with only very limited backbench and minor party opposition. Most of the names of those rebelling will not come as a surprise to many observers, although we note that Labour’s (twice) former Chief Whip, Nick Brown, voted against the Bill’s programme motion, and then appears to have abstained in all subsequent votes.
Still, for all that, Michael Gove can’t claim the government’s largest Commons majority of the parliament. That took place in 2011, on Security Council Resolution 1973. The government then enjoyed a majority of 544.
Wednesday’s speech by Penny Mordaunt on the Loyal Address has attracted much praise – as well as producing a scramble to find out when the word ‘penis’ was first used in parliamentary debates. The answer appears to be a Commons adjournment debate in 1952 – on Mental Defectives (Accommodation) – which was, as its name suggests, not quite as amusing as Mordaunt’s speech. The same applies to the first use of ‘vagina’ in 1961, in another sober debate, this time on the case of Timothy Evans.
Following a research method set out definitively by Flanders and Swann (below) and with all the thrill of first writing BOOBS on a calculator I sent a quick text to Professor Cowley: ‘if penis, then what else?’. Gratifyingly, he instantly replied: ‘I have already started…’.
But two methodological problems are soon revealed in this vital research area. Search for ‘tits’, for example, and you will get an awful lot that are bearded and many more that are blue. The same applies to references to ‘crap’ (the dice game, in debates on gambling). And then there’s the use of words in direct quotations, usually when quoting abuse directed at people, as in many uses of ‘bastard’, say, or ‘shit’ (first mentioned in the Commons in 1979 quoting the phrase ‘No chicken-shit son of a bitch had better try and stop me’), or ‘bollocks’ (1986), or ‘fuck’ (as in ‘on your fucking knees’, in a Lords debate in 1996).
The second problem that such cutting-edge research faces is the misprint – or more precisely, the scanning errors. A search for ‘piss’, say, will turn up an encouraging 78 results, with the suggestion that the word was first uttered in debate as far back as 1901. But the majority of such references are typographical errors of Acts and motions ‘pissed’ by the House rather than ‘passed’. The same applies to a reference in 2004 to a ‘marvellous Euro-wanking make work project’.
These problems aside, the first non-avian outing of ‘tits’ appears to have been during a debate on The Times newspaper in 1981 (‘when put together tits and Toryism are marketable commodities’). ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Bollocking’ now appears to be parliamentary language (used in both 1986 and 1989 in the Commons and in 2000 in the Lords); ‘piss and wind’ was used in both 1969 and 1972 (both times by Liberals, for some reason), and you can find ‘arse’ in Lords debates in 1965 and 1966 and ‘arse over tit’ in the Commons in 1970 (‘[HON MEMBERS: "Oh!"]’). Shit – as a literal description – now appears to be perfectly acceptable (‘we are not talking about farm animals but are dealing basically with the urban problem of dog shit’).
The trailblazer in this field appears to be the actor turned parliamentarian, Andrew Faulds, who once memorably noted that Norman St John Stevas ‘lacked the capacity to put a bun in anyone’s oven’ when the House was discussing abortion. He stands, for example, as the first person to make a non-gambling reference to crap in 1979:
The real revelation of the evening was the cultural contribution made by our new colleague—I wonder how long he will hang around with those views—the hon. Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden). In my 14 years in this House I have never heard such absolute crap from anybody on any Bench in the House. However, because we want lively contributions, I hope that the hon. Member will join in on future occasions.
I hope that what I said did not cause you any distress, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Needless to say it did, and the Deputy Speaker asked Faulds to ‘use other words’. Faulds replied ‘I have a large vocabulary, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I promise that next time I shall choose my word with much more care’. So he did, in 1988:
Mr. Faulds: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker——
Mr. Speaker: Well, I will hear it, and then we will get on.
Mr. Faulds: I am most grateful to you, Sir. You will know that most of us in the House—indeed, I would say the whole Chamber, with one or two exceptions—have great admiration for your Speakership and always respond when you make a request that we should withdraw a comment or correct some improper word. Nearly every hon. Member does that. In this unfortunate case, you have made an appeal to the so-called honourable Member and he has not had the guts, the courage or the honesty to respond to it. Unfortunately, I cannot call him an honourable liar, but—we are surrounded by honourable Members this afternoon—I can call him an honourable shit.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member cannot do that; it offends in every possible way. Kindly withdraw, if not the “honourable”, the last word, which I will not repeat.
Mr. Faulds: With my rich vocabulary I could think of two or three worse words, Mr. Speaker, but to oblige you I will withdraw the word “shit”. There are lots of other words that would suitably apply to the hon. Gentleman.
But nothing compares to George Foulkes, who once described Douglas Hogg as a ‘little arrogant shit’. Asked by the Speaker to withdraw ‘that word’, he replied: ‘Which word do you want me to withdraw, Mr. Speaker—little, arrogant or shit?’
Given that typing rude words into Hansard’s database is a research field in its infancy there were bound to be errors and omissions in any initial report. In addition to the two methodological problems identified above – (a) multiple meanings and (b) misprints – we must now add two others
Firstly mispronunciation by a politician that is subsequently ‘cleaned up’ by Hansard. Anthony Wells helpfully highlighted the classic example of John Speller – then a Defence Minister – who announced to the House, in 2000: ‘We recognised that these cunts in defence medical services had gone too far.’. In addition, in 2010 Police Minister Nick Herbert responded to opposition questioning with ‘I don’t accept that those cunts…’. Yet in both cases the word ‘cuts’ is what makes it into Hansard.
Secondly, as David Boothroyd pointed out there is the case where Hansard simply do not print the offending word. The prime example here comes from the Kenneth Tynan* of the Commons, Reg Race, who was the first to utter the word ‘fuck’ during a debate on the licensing of sex establishments. Faced with the deprecation of the Deputy Speaker and such unparliamentary language Hansard demured and went with: ‘it was revealed in the national newspapers that Conegate had been operating a list of sexual contacts in the shop, the heading of which was Phone them and … them’
*Kenneth Tynan was not actually the first person to say ‘fuck’ on television. As Joe Moran makes clear in his Armchair Nation, he was the third after playwright Brendan Behan in 1956 and a man in 1959 tasked with painting railings all year round who, when asked whether it was boring, replied: ‘Of course it’s fucking boring’.
It will be some time in the early hours of Friday morning until we discover whether Newark will join the list of shock by-election results. But whatever the outcome, we doubt it will be as remarkable as the contest that took place 55 year ago in Earndale. An eventual Conservative victory by just 22 votes (after four recounts) the Earndale campaign was also noticeable for the burgeoning love between the Labour and Conservative candidates and for the fact that no sooner had the Conservative candidate been elected than his uncle’s death elevated him to the Lords voiding the result of the election.
Earndale, of course, doesn’t exist. The by-election was the central plot of Left, Right and Centre, a satire/rom-com hybrid from Launder and Gilliet, best known at the time for their series of St. Trinian’s films. It is part of a long tradition of by-elections as a device in political fiction that stretches back to Dickens’ depiction of the Eatenswill election in the Pickwick Papers in 1836 to the parish by-election that is the catalyst for J K Rowling’s recent foray into “grown-up” literature in The Casual Vacancy.
The film itself was advertised with the tagline – “You’ll Howl When SEX and POLITICS Collide Head On!” – which could be said to have oversold it somewhat; it’s unlikely that anyone howled with laughter, even back then, and it’s a very 1950s take on SEX (which of course stands for LOVE rather than anything remotely raunchy). But still, the film survives as a revealing slice of political history.
That Left, Right and Centre is very much a film is of its time is at least superficially clear. A young Hattie Jacques plays a Labour campaigner, despairing of the destitution and poverty wrought by the Conservatives – whilst simultaneously being confronted by signs of widespread affluence, although in 1959 affluence was indicated by the profusion of TV aerials rather than satellite dishes.
The fictional by-election is also remarkable as it is a straight fight, with just two candidates. Newark boasts eleven which now seems unexceptional; in 2008 in Haltemprice & Howden there were 26 candidates crowding the ballot paper. And, to be expected, it’s a good deal cleaner than more recent examples of fictional takes on politics: there’s no top-quality swearing, no 1950’s equivalent of Tucker’s Law. Yet, in terms of substance, the themes touched on in the film deals are distinctly contemporary.
There are carpet-bagger candidates, desperately pretending to be local. There’s the issue of women in politics, the Labour candidate (played by Patricia Bredin, who just two years before had become Britain’s first entry in the Eurovision Song Contest), who is condescendingly cast as the “Girl for you”, even on her own party’s literature. There are the party activists, feeling unloved by the leadership: “We’re the ones what gets ‘em in”, complains the Labour agent. His Tory counterpart replies: “Not that it is ever appreciated”.
There’s the bumbling efforts of TV celebrities who fancy (and are encouraged to by a media-savvy party machine) trying their hand at politics. The Conservative candidate (played by Ian Carmichael) is characteristically a bit of an upper-class twit most famous for his role on a panel game. Announcing his candidature, the best he can manage is: “If one has something to offer then one ought to offer that something, whatever that something may happen to be.”
Very notable too is the dominant role played by manipulative party apparatchiks. Agents, rather than spin doctors in those days, but just like Malcolm Tucker today marshalling bumbling politicians and setting the agenda. Once love blossoms between the two candidates they do their best to stamp it out, and to engineer conflict. “It’s horrible”, complains the Labour agent. “If we was all to behave like this what would happen to parliamentary government?”
But above all, Left, Right & Centre (its very title all-encompassing) is pervaded by a sense of widespread political apathy and a soggy, consensus politics – the parties appearing so similar that it is impossible to tell them apart. From the point where the two candidates meet on the train, and order the same breakfast (“We seem to have the same ideas”, says Carmichael), to a lovely set piece in which there is a mix up over meeting venues, and the Conservative party bigwig delivers the same platitudinous speech (“Let’s keep strong, and look after the old folk”) to both parties – no-one notices, and he receives a standing ovation at both venues – the film plays up the extent to which the occupation of the centre ground leads to a bland politics of consensus and agreement, a childish playing up of minor differences, and a deadening of political discourse.
Plague on both your houses
From the very outset the film displays all the negativity and cynical tropes of representations of politics and politicians that are so familiar today but that can be traced back to Shakespeare. The animated title sequence even ends with a wall upon which are scrawled the words from Romeo & Juliet: “A plague on both your houses”, itself the title and epigraph of an earlier novel on politics written by Philip Gibbs in 1949.
This is followed by a world-weary narration that suggests that the electorate get the politicians they deserve – and it’s an electorate that the film also makes clear does not deserve very much. Apathy prevails, like today people are portrayed as obsessed with celebrities and low-brow culture. The film proceeds to show us bickering party managers, limp and windy politicians and above all a sage defeatism about the point of politics, with politics depicted as a game of, and for, its practioners. A politics devoid of real issues or debate, and of little interest or concern to anyone else. In all of its 89 minutes, there is not a single positive reference to politics or politicians.
Left, Right, and Centre may not be the greatest film in the world (though the one review on Amazon which begins with the words: “Not Very Good…” is a bit harsh). But anyone who thinks today’s politics – and complaints about it – are somehow original should be chained to a chair and made to watch it on a loop until they scream their repentance.
Philip Cowley has received funding from the ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust and the Nuffield Foundation.
Matthew Bailey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Queen’s Speech marks the start of the fourth and final session of the 2010 Parliament. Final sessions are usually relatively uncontroversial. An approaching general election has traditionally calmed things down in the Commons. Fewer MPs want to rock the boat.
There is usually less serious legislation to cause trouble, anyway. Why introduce controversial legislation knowing that an election called in the middle of the session will cause it to fall? Why cause unnecessary resentment among your own backbenchers? It all tended to combine to produce what Churchill once called the “odour of dissolution”.
The rules of the game have changed now, though. One consequence of the government’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is that – barring something unforeseen – this session should go the distance. With no need to curtail the session mid-way through, legislation announced today should in most cases be able to reach the statute book. This gives slightly less scope for inter-party game playing (it makes it riskier to introduce bills just to differentiate yourself from the opposition) and it raises the stakes for intra-party dissent (unhappy backbenchers can no longer keep quiet, knowing that dissolution will kill a bill with which they have concerns).
And rather than just one governing party binding together to face a forthcoming contest, we now have two parties, both keen to differentiate themselves from one another. The Lib Dem bit of the government will not mind doing things that infuriate Conservative backbenchers; the Conservative bit of the government will delight in doing things to wind up Lib Dem backbenchers.
Rocky road ahead
So this may be a rockier final session than many. And while many MPs will say they place a premium on unity as the general election approaches, their behaviour thus far in the parliament has not demonstrated any great ability to actually deliver that unity.
Together with my colleague Mark Stuart, I have just compiled a report on the Coalition’s backbench parties since 2010, entitled The Four Year Itch. The 2013-2014 session saw a Coalition backbench rebellion in 31% of divisions, topping the comparable figure for all but five post-war sessions. And the rate for the parliament as a whole (that is, 2010-14) now stands at a rebellion in 37% of divisions, meaning the parliament is on course to be (almost certainly) the most rebellious since 1945.
To give you some comparable examples, throughout the whole of the Thatcher and Major era backbench rebellion averaged a rebellion in 14% of divisions. During the Blair and Brown years, the figure was 19%. It is now 37%.
Most backbench rebels are Conservative – as are most of the very rebellious MPs – but then there are more Conservative MPs. But while numerically smaller, rebellion is much more widespread amongst the Lib Dems. Whereas just over half (52%) of Conservative MPs have rebelled, a total of 42 Lib Dems, or 72% of the parliamentary party, have now done so.
Indeed, once you exclude those Lib Dem MPs who are or were at some point members of the “payroll vote”, either as ministers or parliamentary private secretaries – and thus expected to remain loyal to the government, there is now not a single Lib Dem MP who has been on the backbenches throughout the parliament and who has remained loyal to the party whip.
Bolshy backbenchers abound
And it is not just the quantity of rebelliousness that is remarkable, but its quality. The events of the last session are a reminder of the extent to which the ferocity of backbench independence has increased recently. The one outright Commons defeat was over Syria (which saw the largest Coalition rebellion of the session) and which was historically unprecedented. But there were also several very high-profile retreats, over both last year’s Queen’s Speech and the Immigration Bill, in both cases seeing the Conservative part of the Coalition forced to allow backbenchers a free vote to avoid massive rebellions.
Both the latter issues were driven by the muscular Euroscepticism that is now dominant on the Conservative backbenches. Rebellions by Conservative MPs in the last session over non-European issues had a median average size of just five MPs. Those over Europe had a median average of 23.
An often unremarked aspect of both these latter votes – as with the votes in the preceding parliament on boundary changes – was that there was no coherent government position. The Conservative frontbench abstained, the Liberal Democrats were whipped to vote down the amendments and joined Labour in doing so on both occasions. What was the position of Her Majesty’s government on the Queen’s speech or the Immigration Bill amendment? Answer: it depended which bit of Her Majesty’s government you talk to.
Still, if you think it’s rough now, just imagine what it might be like after the next election if the Conservatives manage to stay in government. If the Conservatives manage to get an overall majority, it is – putting it politely – difficult to imagine it will be a large majority. Ditto if they are propped up by the DUP. The only real prospect of a decent-sized majority for a Conservative prime minister after the next election would appear to be some fresh arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, however many of them are left. None of this looks like a recipe for harmony.
Philip Cowley has received funding from the ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust and the Nuffield Foundation.
We’ve been producing end-of-session reports on the behavior of government MPs at Westminster for almost a decade. This morning we’ve launched the report on the 2013-14 session, entitled The four year itch (and which is free to download). It contains plenty to concern the party whips.
A Coalition rebellion in 31% of divisions, up on 27% last session, and topping the comparable figure for all but five post-war sessions.
Conservative MPs have broken ranks in 24% of divisions (up from 19% in the last session, but still lower than the 28% in the 2010-12 session), Lib Dem MPs have done so in 17% (marginally up from 15% in the last session, and still down from 24% in the 2010-12 session). The figure for the Conservatives alone is higher than for all but 11 sessions between 1945 and 2010, and higher than all but three sessions of Conservative government.
The rate for the Parliament as a whole (that is, 2010-14) now stands at a rebellion in 37% of divisions, meaning that the Parliament remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945. Even in the very unlikely event that the rate of rebellion drops off to nothing in the remaining session we would expect the overall total for the Parliament to be around 31%, still enough to make it the most rebellious in the post-war era.
A total of 201 Coalition MPs have now voted against their whip thus far during the Parliament. Most (159) of these are Conservatives.
Of the top ten most rebellious Coalition MPs, nine are Conservatives, headed by Philip Hollobone, with 153 rebellious votes since the election in 2010. The most rebellious Coalition MP of the session was Philip Davies. But in all three sessions of the Parliament so far the three most rebellious MPs have been Hollobone, Nuttall and Davies; all that changed in the last session was the rank order.
Past behaviour is a very good predictor of current behaviour: the correlation between rebellions in the 2013-14 session and in the first two sessions was 0.82.
Of the 159 Conservative rebels, 91 (or six in ten) are from the 2010 intake. Of the new intake some 62% have rebelled at least once, and of those who have been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament the figure rises to 85%.
The average government majorities achieved in the session remain around the same level as in the preceding session (the mean average in the last session was 101, now 102). It fell below 50 on 21 occasions, that is 9% of whipped votes, including one defeat.
The one outright Commons defeat was over Syria (which saw the largest Coalition rebellion of the session), but there were also very high profile retreats, as over the Queen’s Speech and the Raab amendment. One aspect of both these latter votes – as with the votes in the preceding parliament on boundary changes – was that there was no coherent government position. The Conservative frontbench abstained, the Liberal Democrats were whipped to vote down the amendments, and joined Labour in doing so on both occasions. What was the position of Her Majesty’s Government on the Queen’s speech or the Raab amendment? Answer: it depends which bit of Her Majesty’s Government you talk to.
The largest rebellions by Conservative MPs during the session numbered 33 MPs, on European matters (twice) and over the Second Reading of HS2. During the session, there were eight votes when more than 20 Conservative MPs rebelled; all eight took place on votes over Syria, HS2, or Europe.
UPDATE: Originally launched without a front cover image, we’ve now updated the link above to include a suitable illustration. May it not give you too many sleepless nights.
We’re just finishing off our end-of-session rebellions report, due out next week. We’ve discovered just 12 Coalition MPs who have become more rebellious, session-on-session, since 2010. Of these 12 MP, in six cases, their increasing rebelliousness is because of departure from government at some point. In other words, they were loyal because they were in government; they begin to rebel once they’ve returned to the backbenches.
This leaves just six, backbenchers throughout the parliament, and who have become more rebellious year-on-year. Five are Conservatives, all from the 2010 intake: Tracey Crouch, Charlotte Leslie, Philip Lee, Chris Pincher, and Mark Pawsey. The lone Lib Dem is Tim Farron.
We are just compiling our annual end-of-session report on backbench dissent, to be released (with luck) in time for the Queen’s Speech. Watch this space.
For the first two sessions of the Parliament the most rebellious Coalition MP was Philip Hollobone. For the session just ended, however, he has slipped into third place. The most rebellious Conservative MP in the last session was – drum roll – Philip Davies.
Mind you, it’s not as if all that much has changed: in every session since the Parliament began the most three rebellious MPs have been the unholy trinity of Hollobone, Nuttall and Davies, and that remains true.
To mark the 2014 elections to the European Parliament, the editors of Parliamentary Affairs have drawn together ten articles dealing with the European Parliament, published by the journal over the last fifty years, showing how debates about the institution have changed (or not) over the years. All papers are free to access in 2014. They are downloadable from here.
We’ve been coming to Westminster to interview MPs for more than 20 years, and lots has changed about the place in that time. But one of the most dramatic has been the effect of the building of Portcullis House – and in ways that were unforeseen at the time and seem to have gone without comment since.
What was meant to be an auxiliary building – housing Members offices, some committee rooms, and some refreshment facilities– has become centre of the parliamentary estate, shifting attention away from the old Palace. (This is at least true of the Commons; it may be less true of the Lords). There always used to be a jibe about how the Palace of Westminster would function better as a museum, to which the retort, from anyone who knew anything about it, was that it was a working building. Bits of it still are, but large parts of it – and certainly the public areas – are now largely deserted for much of the day, save for tourists and groups of school kids. This is most noticeable, if only because it used to be so damned busy, in the Central Lobby itself, now so quiet much of the time you half expect to see some tumbleweed roll across the floor. Instead, it is now the ground floor of Portcullis House where you see journalists circle looking for sources or where you see MPs meeting constituents and each other. Friends in the lobby tell us that the Members lobby is also now similarly a shadow of what it used to be. We shape our buildings, said Churchill, and afterwards our buildings shape us.
The best beard and eyebrows in the House of Commons are to retire. Sir Robert Rogers, the Clerk of the House, (and Chief Executive) is standing down. His letter to the Speaker is worth reading. In it, he notes that having served in the Commons for 42 years – over 11 parliaments – ‘I can truly say that the House now is a more effective scrutiniser of the executive, and more topical, relevant, and independent-minded, than I have ever known it’.