Coalition cohesion

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…

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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2 Responses to Coalition cohesion

  1. Carl.H says:

    Do you think any of this is attributable to the fact that there are numerous new MPs ? Have the whips not got their hands on the grubby little little secrets yet ?

    I feel the public are likely to side with an MP against his party if that is the constituency consensus but going against the party has not proved a good career move in a lot of cases.

    The defeats in the Lords are, not insignificant but definitely not major and no matter how an insider sees it, it appears to the public the Lords roll over. The good Lord will say but a lot is done privately and this is true I expect but nevertheless there have been some bills the public would like to have seen thrown out altogether. We have seen Lords committees give good evidence against many things but still these bills pass the House. I ask the noble Lord at a time when reform is very much at the forefront, what is the point of expertise when it is ignored ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: The new intake of MPs has proved remarkably active as well as independent, something of a challenge to the whips. On the Lords, the Bills do go through the House but the form in which they leave it can be very different to the form in which they entered. Have a look especially at the Public Bodies Bill, a good example of what can be achieved through debate, some defeats and, in this context, the threat of defeat. On the most important issue, the Government lost the argument and, if it had persisted, would have lost the vote as well.

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