Moving forward

Peace appears to have broken out in the Lords.  This afternoon, the Leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, announced that agreement had been reached through the usual channels on the timetable for committee stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.  Committee stage will be completed by Wednesday and the Government will bring forward concessions at Report stage.  The announcement is a great relief.  As I said in the debate on 20 March, there was still time for an outbreak of common sense and that appears to be what has happened.

As I have explained in a post on Lords of the Blog, the debate itself appears to have proceeded on the basis of some myths expounded by some peers: that the coalition enjoys a clear majority in the House and that Government’s attempts to force the Bill through without the support of the Opposition is somehow illegitimate.  Of 31 votes held in the Parliament up to the Christmas recess, the Government lost nine of them, hardly a sign of Government dominance.  Hardly any major constitutional measure over the past century has been enacted on the basis of cross-party agreement.  Normally, they have been the subject of partisan conflict and passed by the Govermment majority in the teeth of Opposition resistance.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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12 Responses to Moving forward

  1. Carl.H says:

    Peace in out time eh ! Seem’s I’ve heard that before.

    The House of Lords, as of 9 January 2011
    Labour – 233
    Conservative – 204
    Liberal Democrats – 83

    As far as the three main political parties are concerned Government have a clear majority.

    Crossbenchers – 182

    I seem to remember someone quoting a figure that crossbenchers voting was along 20% of it’s membership. If that is true, at present I am unable to find the statistic at present, the Government do have a majority especially knowing the crossbench will often divide.

    In this instance a lot of crossbench members were in attendance but I have no figure available to me. We also have to take into account it is actual members in attendance when a division is called and that is a difficult one to predict.

    Has the Government a majority in the House ?

    In partisan terms, yes.
    In actual membership, no.
    In statistical weight of numbers based on voting turnout, yes.

    “One of the most immediately notable features of the Crossbenchers
    is their low voting record. Despite their large numbers, the average
    Crossbench turnout in ‘divisions’ in the eight sessions since the
    chamber was reformed in 1999 was just 21 members, or 12% of those
    eligible to vote.” P.41

    http://pa.oxfordjournals.org/content/62/1/32.full.pdf

  2. Lord Norton says:

    Carl.H: These are last Parliament’s figures. That is my point. The cross-benchers have in effect re-invented themselves in this Parliament and have taken over the role performed previously by the Liberal Democrats. They are far more prominent in attendance and voting.

    If the Government had a real majority, it wouldn’t keep losing votes!

  3. Carl.H says:

    My Lord the figures above match exactly the figures the figures given on
    http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/lords/lords-by-type-and-party/

    Which are supposedly correct as of 10th January 2011.

    “If the Government had a real majority, it wouldn’t keep losing votes!”

    My Lord I feel you know very well that there are so many variables such as attendance, crossbench votes and free votes that can skew such issues. Compromises in deals outside the Chamber also have effect as does evidence only found through the scrutiny of the Lords themselves to which amendments are then applied making it appear Government lost. Perhaps winning and losing in the House are not the best descriptive terms.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I meant the last Parliament’s figures in respect of the participation of the cross-benchers, not the party breakdown of peers!

      • Carl.H says:

        Apologies my Lord, the figures actually mentioned in the above article were from 1999-2007 I believe.

        I’ve looked for more recent stats on crossbench voting but am unable at present to locate such.

  4. Carl.H says:

    My Lord looking individually through the records here (Click each one for stats) :
    http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/mp.php?mpn=Baroness_Afshar&mpc=Lords&house=lords&display=everyvote#divisions

    The breakdown on the crossbench voting stats does not appear any better than those mentioned above therefore if one was a bookmaker one would have to conclude that Government were an odds on favourite for a majority.

    Infact I’ve just taken the time to collate the figures. In this Parliament from June until now the average Crossbench vote is 20.39%

    The Highest voting figure was 48.2% on Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (4th Day)

    The lowest was 1.0% Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill — Committee (4th Day) (Continued) — 13 Dec 2010 at 22:38

    High figures were noticeable for Tuition Fees and the Public Bodies Bill.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: The average is precisely that and, as you show, there are massive variations. The cross-benchers are turning up in some numbers for the important debates and that is what puts the Government under pressure.

  5. Carl.H says:

    My Lord, as you have stated in the past Crossbenchers tend to split sometimes fairly evenly. With 48%, which is approx 88, split this would still give Government a majority. The 48% being a high rarely seen across other debates, infact the highest crossbench turnout on the PVSC was 24.9% with lows as much as 1.6%.

    On the day of the 48% turnout was a split of 51 – 30 in favour of Government.

    I am merely stating fact and understand there are variables such as attendance which I have already mentioned to take into account but statistically on basic numbers my money would be on Government.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: Yes, I have pointed out that they have to split disproportionately against Government in order to threaten Government. That is why the Government has to work to carry the House with it. It cannot rely on the cross-benchers either having a poor turnout or splitting evenly, even if that is what normally happens. Equally, as this Parliament is showing, it cannot rely on all coalition peers to support it. Also we appear to be getting in a situation where the threat of the cross-benchers turning out in some numbers to challenge the Government is influencing Government and therefore achieving results without a vote.

  6. Carl.H says:

    This leads on to the question of reform of the House and how it should be comprised.

    The present idea of Government is that it should reflect closely the election results and therefore the make-up of the Commons. This appears unfair and certainly doesn’t do anything to reinforce the idea of independent scrutiny. Being this is the case I suggest the Crossbenchers should accept the role of the percentage of the electorate who didn’t vote thereby their numbers should reflect 34.9% of the House.

    The noble Lord will no doubt go on to talk of the value of rebellion and how not all follow the party line. I have looked briefly at this years figures and to my mind the rebellions are insignificant on major bills, overall the House has been partisan. The exception being the Isle of Wight amendment which in my opinion was badly thought out in light of what Government were trying to achieve, infact it left the door open for greater scrutinising of the forthcoming boundaries.

    I have always been of the mind the Upper House should be independent and the less partisan the better. However in knowing that the crossbenchers turnout on average is just 20% (approx 37) of their number this will prove a little difficult.

    How to achieve the independent scrutiny necessary without a major partisan element or influence is looking to appear impossible. How should the House be comprised ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: There is very little rebellion in the sense of peers voting against their own party, but the problem (at least in methodological terms) is assessing the extent to which members abstain. The first defeat of the Government in this Parliament would not have occurred had not (a) cross-benchers divided primarily against the Government and (b) a number of Conservatives abstained. One can ascertain (a) from the record but not (b). Peers who disagree with their own side are prone to stay away rather than vote. This can be somewhat problematic for researchers – e.g. me.

      “The present idea of Government is that it should reflect closely the election results and therefore the make-up of the Commons. This appears unfair and certainly doesn’t do anything to reinforce the idea of independent scrutiny. ” I agree, ands we have seen, the statement in the coalition agreement has created problems.

  7. Carl.H says:

    I’ve been thinking about this especially in the light of any reform and composition in terms of parties is going to be extremely difficult.

    If it was equal between three parties and crossbench everytime a coalition came about there would be a majority if not in actuality but in effect. Proportionally as the election would give a comparable make-up as the commons and how do you change that each election ?

    I think this is going to be a major headache and it will have to be dealt with soon as numbers simply cannot keep rising as they are.

    My Lord you must have had some thoughts on this matter ?

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