I was at the University of Leeds on Monday, to give a paper on ‘Coalition cohesion’, at a conference on Cameron and the Conservatives: The Transition to Coalition Government. With the creation of a coalition, there are two dimensions to cohesion: holding the parties to the coalition together and holding together the members within each party.
So far, the principal problem has been that of holding together the members of each party: intra-party cohesion has been more demanding than inter-party cohesion. The House of Commons has witnessed unprecedented levels of dissent by Government backbenchers. In previous Parliaments, there were some high levels of dissent, but complete cohesion in divisions remained the norm rather than the exception. In this Parliament, it has been the exception rather than the norm. Up to the February recess, 53 per cent of divisions witnessed one or more coalition MPs voting against the Government. This is all the more remarkable in the first session of a Parliament under a new Government – normally a period of high cohesion in the Govermment’s ranks. Conservative MPs have tended to dissent on constitutional issues and Liberal Democrat MPs on social issues. In the Lords, there have been 71 divisions in the Parliament and one or more coalition peers have dissented in 27 of them. (Liberal Democrats have dissented in 17 divisions and Conservatives in 16.) There have also been four divisions in which Labour peers have dissented.
But does it matter? The average Tory dissenting lobby in the Commons has been seven. The Government has not lost any votes. In the Lords, the Government has been defeated 14 times, but most of the defeats have been attributable to cross-bench peers voting in significant numbers and dividing disproportionately against the Government. (In one case, 84 voted against the Government and only three voted for.) Cross-voting by coalition peers made a differnce in only four cases.
It does matter, though, in two respects. One is that electors do not reward divided parties, so if there a recognition outside Parliament that MPs are dissenting (though it is by no means certain that the public are conscious of parliamentary voting behaviour) then there may be a political cost. The other is that if it replicates past trends, with later sessions witnessing more dissent than the first, then we are in for a fairly bumpy ride…