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Rebels, rebels? The tiers are a mess

Mike McCartney

1st December 2020

The latest parliamentary rebellion, this time over regional covid restrictions, has hit the headlines. Why?

I ask why, because the fact that our nation's MPs are revolting shouldn't really be major news.

In response to the idea that we live in a post-parliamentary age Parliament could say, as Mark Twain did, ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ Not only is there evidence that Westminster is increasingly representative, its scrutiny powers have been enhanced significantly thanks to the development of select committees, there is also a great deal of evidence that MPs are more rebellious than ever.

And much of this evidence has been visible for nearly twenty years, with backbench rebellions beginning to cause governments from the Blair era onwards major headaches - suggesting the party whipping system is not as strong as has 'traditionally' been the case is therefore far from being a new development.

Rebellions by MPs mean that votes on bills don’t always go the way the government would like. Probably the most oft cited example of MPs defeating a major proposal by the government is the rejection of Blair’s plans as Prime Minister to extend the detention of terrorist suspects to 90 days. So the idea that MPs are simply lobby fodder has been under challenge for some time, and it can be argued that the picture of MPs as sheep is misleading and historical. Research on the voting behaviour of MPs from the noughties onwards suggests rebellion had clearly gone beyond the usual suspects given that 112 Labour backbenchers went against the government at least once – this was nearly one third of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Then, reporting on research by Cowley, the Guardian reported that Con-Lib MPs went against the whip on the majority of votes in the coalition era: “Backbench rebellions against the government have been more frequent in this parliament than any since the second world war, according to new research, with 59 rebellions out of the first 110 votes. This is double the rate during the last Labour government and almost nine times as frequent as the post-war average, suggesting for some MPs rebellion against the coalition is becoming a habit.”

To add further context, research published in Cowley's book 'Revolts' and on draws attention to the fact that were two entire parliamentary sessions in the 1950s when not a single MP voted against their party, i.e. they toed the party line on every single division.

For the record, the Con-Lib government was defeated several times on significant votes as a result of backbench rebellions:

  • In 2012 a postwar record of 91 Tories voted against Lords reform
  • In a 2013 a new record of 134 rebelled on the issue of gay marriage
  • In the same year, perhaps the most high profile defeat was on proposed military action in Syria – it is virtually unprecedented in Commons history for a PM to lose a vote on military conflict.

David Cameron as PM also had egg on his face as a result of defeats for the Tory majority government, including issues such as the EU referendum bill and Sunday trading laws. So it was clearly not just the Lib-Dems that were 'bolshy backbenchers' when Cameron was in charge.

Following Cameron's exit form the stage as PM, we have seen various shades of Tories defeat their party leaders on Europe. Firstly we saw Theresa May face humiliating defeats on her version of the Brexit Bill, and then more rebellions over Europe and the complex Northern Ireland border for her successor, Boris Johnson.

So, this leaves the tiers vote. In case you are reading this after having woken up from a deep slumber, this is what the fuss is about.

And then this brings us to the question as to why MPs are more rebellious.

One explanation for the increasing independence of MPs is that party loyalty among the electorate is no longer as high, i.e. partisan dealignment has occurred so that voters no longer vote blindly according to previous psychologically based attachments. We could add that the rise of the career politician also helps us understand this trend. This runs contrary to a great deal of media criticism, which contends that those who have entered the Commons without real-world experience, or a profession, to fall back on are more likely to do what their respective party whips command of them because this type of MP wants to be promoted. In fact, because MPs of this nature have been steeped in politics long before entering the Commons, the argument is that they can spot flaws in government plans and vote for what they as being the best course of action for their constituents.

See an article summarising a recent piece of academic research here.

So, overall, there is evidence that we are moving more to the American system of legislator, where they see themselves as delegates rather than trustees, or mere lobby fodder upholding the party mandate. One of the most rebellious MPs is Philip Hollobone, and he talks about his desire to represent his Kettering constituents here.

So there it is. Reports of the death of Parliament have been greatly exaggerated for some, and so it is questionable why the idea that our country's MPs are no longer sheep is still a story. In other words, high rates of rebellions by MPs are now part of the Westminster landscape.

That said, one final thing before signing off. We shouldn't get carried away here. Academics, like Philip Cowley, are keen to point out that this is all relative. In our system, members of the legislature do vote with their party, the vast majority of the time.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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