The most rebellious parliament of the post-war eraBy Philip Cowley on 28 March 2015
For the last twenty or so years, Mark Stuart and I have been monitoring backbench dissent in the Commons. The parliament just ended is the fifth that we’ve written about, in one form or another, and it has been probably the most fascinating – although it’s a toss-up with the 1992-97 Parliament.
We’ve just compiled our final end-of-parliament stats, taking in last week’s votes. There were a total of 50 backbench rebellions by Coalition MPs in the last session). That is 50 rebellions out of 188 votes – or a revolt in 27% of Commons divisions. This makes the last session one of the least rebellious of the last decade. Over the last ten years, just one session (that of 2006-07) saw a lower rate of rebellion (whilst another, 2012-13, saw the same). But this is mostly just a sign of how rebellious the House has become in recent years. Because of all the sessions before 2005, going back as far as 1945, there were just four – those of 1971-72, 1977-78, 1978-79, and 2004-05 – which saw higher rates of rebellion. As a cursory glance at those dates will reveal, they mostly were times of high political drama – including the bill to join the EEC and the end of the Callaghan government. In other words, by the standards of most of the post-war period, the last year would have been seen as very rebellious; it is only by the standards of the last decade that things look relatively light.
Moreover, that session is the last of a parliament which is now officially the most rebellious in the post-war era. Taken as a whole, from 2010 to 2015, Coalition MPs rebelled in 35% of divisions. That easily beats the previous record of 28%, held by the Blair/Brown government from 2005-2010.
Much has been made of the various post-election deals that parties may have to do to get a majority in the Commons. Too much of this discussion has treated the parties as if they are unitary actors, able to deliver all of their troops on votes. This will be largely true of votes of confidence required to establish – or throw out – a government. But it will not be so true of more run-of-the-mill votes. MPs are becoming increasingly rebellious, and a minority Cameron government (for example) will not just find themselves having to negotiate with DUP or UKIP MPs – but also with Philip Hollobone or Peter Bone. The same applies to a Labour minority government, which will have to do just as many deals with John McDonnell as it does with the SNP or the Greens. Even in the event that either party secures a majority – which right now looks extremely unlikely – no one is predicting these will be large majorities, so backbench dissenters will not be easy to ignore then either. There is a story during the Thatcher years of Nicholas Winterton once being curtly dismissed by a whip with the words: 'I'm too busy to waste my time with a tosser like you'. That attitude hasn’t worked for a while – and it certainly won’t work after May.
At last week’s conference on election forecasting, one of John Curtice’s predictions was that I would be in heaven as a result. ‘He'll be on Newsnight every night’. These days, I’m usually in bed by 9pm, so this is as much a nightmare for me as it would be for the viewers and the party whips.
Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham.
Image: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced here with the permission of Parliament.