There were some very productive sessions at the annual Study of Parliament Conference in Oxford at the weekend. One was on the socialisation of parliamentarians. I have already done a post on Lords of the Blog on the socialisation of peers. However, one member of the panel also touched upon the extent to which MPs were notably independent in the current Parliament. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on the explanations for this.
The present session of Parliament is unprecedented, as a first session, for the level of intra-party dissent. In particular, Government MPs, including new MPs, are willing to vote against the whips on a scale that was previously unthinkable at the start of new Parliaments under newly-elected Governments. The Blair Government had no such problem in 1997.
The expenses scandal obviously provides an important backdrop and may have had an effect on the type of candidate selected. However, of significance in my view is the fact that no party won an overall majority. Lots of new MPs did not come in thinking it was all the result of the party leader. They were probably more prone to think that it was due to their own efforts. The fact of coalition is also important. Conservative MPs have realised that there is not the same scope for promotion as in the past: there are fewer government posts available for Conservative MPs than would normally be the case and ministerial turnover is less frequent than in earlier Parliaments. Tension between parties to the coalition – or indeed agreement between the party leaders – can lead to backbenchers wishing to preserve the integrity of the party line. Once dissent has built up, there also becomes safety in numbers. There is some evidence of Members hunting in packs, not least the new cohort of Conservative MPs.
One other factor which is now coming to the fore is the review of constituency boundaries. Not only are there to be fewer seats but also few seats with unchanged boundaries. MPs are jostling to get noticed by local parties in order to secure their re-drawn seat or find a new one. One explanation being offered for the large number of Conservative MPs being willing to defy the whip and vote last year for a referendum on the EU is that it plays well with local parties.
A ministerial reshuffle is expected in the spring – and there is still a long way to go to the next election….