When is a rebel not a rebel?

Lord Norton

According to the admirable TheyWorkforYou.com, I am a peer who ‘quite often rebels’ against my party.  This is based on the fact that, according to the equally admirable Public Whip, I have voted against my own side in 41 out of 734 divisions.  

The description is about right, though not necessarily because of the votes listed in the Public Whip.  As the Public Whip notes, details of whipping are not published, so the determination of a rebel is based on whether one votes in the opposite lobby to that of most of your party colleagues.  This not only captures whipped votes but also free votes.  As a result, I variously figure as a rebel because I have gone into one lobby on a free vote and most Conservatives have gone into the other lobby.

However, this is balanced by the fact that I sometimes vote against my party in a way that the software cannot capture.  The Opposition line on some votes is to abstain.  I am not a natural abstainer (sorry, Chief Whip) and so on occasion will vote.  If I am the only one doing so, then I constitute the totality of the Conservative vote.  Because 100% of the Conservative vote – i.e. me – is in one lobby, this constitutes the party position and so I am classed as loyal.  There have been a number of occasions where this has happened, with me sometimes being joined by one or more colleagues.  The position is also muddied on occasion by the fact that the Front Bench decides to abstain but leaves it to back-benchers to decide what to do.

This creates problems for those seeking to analyse voting behaviour in Parliament – basically academics like me.  I was giving a paper once on voting behaviour in the Lords and mentioned that in one of the sessions I was covering, I was the leading Tory rebel.  I had to point out that as a parliamentarian I wasn’t trying to skew my own data!

22 comments for “When is a rebel not a rebel?

  1. Chris K
    31/12/2009 at 7:48 pm

    By chance I had the Public Whip open in another window as I opened this! Looking at division lists always throws up some surprises. If only I spent as much time revising for exams…

    It’s a shame their records for the Lords only go back to after 1999’s reform. Is there a list of all eligible/sitting peers as at 10th November 1999 anywhere?

    Looking at Lord Norton’s two most recent “rebellions”, on the C&J Bill, I presume the last was a proper rebellion. Whereas the division just before it, in which 8 Tory peers voted, I presume was not. I also wonder what Lord Norton makes of his list of “friends”!

    Happy New Year Lord Norton and everyone. 2010 should be jolly exciting. I just hope I’m not distracted too much.

    • Gar Hywel
      31/12/2009 at 9:08 pm

      734 is an amazingly dedicated number of divisions!Happy new year to that!

      Front bench abstaining with back bench taking their choice certainly sounds like a recipe for chaos. Is it? Or is it because it does not really matter to anybody, and want back bench to feel that they ….do?!

      • lordnorton
        31/12/2009 at 11:25 pm

        Gar Hywel: It can get amazingly complex. For example, when I moved my amendment to the procedural motion on the Parliamentary Standards Bill – to ensure that the Bill received proper parliamentary scrutiny – the position of the Opposition Front Bench was to abstain but to leave it to back-benchers as to what to do (in the event, they all voted for my amendment). The Liberal Democrat Front Bench announced at the end of the debate that they would support the Government; several of their back-benchers ignored this and afterwards there was diasgreement among some Liberal Democrat peers as to whether they were on a whip or a free vote. The Government side was whipped (though a dozen, mostly senior, back-benchers ignored the whip). It made for an interesting evening.

      • Nick
        01/01/2010 at 2:47 am

        If we take Lord Norton’s out of date figure, that means it costs use 147,000 pounds per division.

        Time to axe the Club


    • lordnorton
      31/12/2009 at 11:19 pm

      Chris K: If you took Politics A-level, you may find you could kill two birds with one stone! On the list of peers sitting on 10 November 1999, I suspect one may to work it out from the annual edition of Dod’s Parliamentary Companion. On the last two ‘rebellions’ on the C&J Bill, they were both free votes; indeed, the last three listed were. (At least I think the second one, in which eight voted, was!) As for the list of ‘friends’, it always amazes me. The inclusion of some names is certainly counter-intuitive. Happy New Year.

      • Len
        01/01/2010 at 2:03 pm

        Lord Norton, how often are free votes, or whipped abstaining? I’d always assumed (probably wrongly) that they were both quite rare but this post and the comments make it seem much more common!

  2. 31/12/2009 at 8:52 pm

    Is is possible for the whipping to be “leaked” to the Public Whip to produce more accurate statistics and to make the lives of academics easier?

    • lordnorton
      31/12/2009 at 11:27 pm

      Jonathan: That is not as simple as it sounds. See my response to Gar Hywel above. Trying to make sense of that for the Public Whip would require a great deal of work.

  3. 31/12/2009 at 11:01 pm

    Yes, it would be nice to have full data for proper analysis but I’m perplexed by Mr Cameron’s recent call to mash up the words of Crowds With Debatable Wisdom alongside his call to scrap ID cards.

    Or is it just me?

  4. tory boy
    01/01/2010 at 1:11 pm

    Lord Norton,

    The picture alongside your blog shows a different committee of the whole house chair to the one used today. Who took the decision to change the chair in the picture? (Which I think is much better than the office desk chair used at the moment.)

    • lordnorton
      02/01/2010 at 1:48 pm

      tory boy: There has not been a change in the chair used when the House goes into committee. It is hardly visible in the picture, since it is not occupied. The Lord Speaker is on the Woolsack.

  5. 01/01/2010 at 4:29 pm

    What penalties/rewards can a Whip give to rebel peers?

    • lordnorton
      02/01/2010 at 1:49 pm

      ladytizzy: The short answer is none. The principal power of the whips is one of persuasion. Beyond that, they have no real carrots or sticks.

      • 02/01/2010 at 8:34 pm

        In the light of your reply, do you believe that the HoC Whips reduce the effectiveness of parliament?

  6. Gar Hywel
    01/01/2010 at 6:28 pm

    Roll on the uni-cameral evolution!

    Clive, Lord Soley showed me the whip one one occasion in the other place, and I must say it is a gruesome item!

    Not so in the HofL!

  7. Carl Holbrough
    02/01/2010 at 6:33 pm

    Statistics are great at proving the ordinary person is not average, eg., they have more than the average amount of legs.

    There are 1,381 seats in Parliament, Labour has 560.No majority.

    The House of Lords in 2008 sat for 148 days for an average of 6.75 hours per session. 999 hours averages to 2.73 hours per day. 148 days at full allowances (as August 1 2008) = £48840 or £133.80 per day = £49.01 per hour. If all Lords sat on those days at full allowances the cost would be £34,481,040. The Government were defeated 25 times in 2008/9, that`s £1,379,241 per defeat.

    It’s like the tale of the roadside merchant who was asked to explain how he could sell rabbit sandwiches so cheap. “Well” he explained, “I have to put some horse-meat in too. But I mix them 50:50. One horse, one rabbit.

    A statistician is a person who draws a mathematically precise line from an unwarranted assumption to a foregone conclusion.


    Bullying, cajoling, coercion has no place in our society let alone in our Law making democracy. If free thinking and free voting is not allowed in the Lords, our system is no longer a democracy and we may as well elect Stalin. How can we as a Nation chastise Iran on their political elections or Mugabe when we allow threats of some kind on our elected and non elected parliamentarians ?

    The Houses of Parliament can no longer say it above the law and the law would forbid the practice of whips. It is not ethical when you are there to represent the people to instead represent the view of just one organisation that a small number (Labour at present 170,000) of people belong to.

  8. tory boy
    02/01/2010 at 7:04 pm

    Lord Norton,

    I would hate to disagree but i am going to i bet you that the committee of the house chair in the picture has changed to an office chair on wheels. I want to know y as the one in the picture is much better than the one current office chair.

    • lordnorton
      02/01/2010 at 10:57 pm

      tory boy: The chair with wheels is a wheelchair. Wheelchair-bound peers sit behind the Clerks. The chair occupied by whoever is chairing when the House goes into committee is the other side the Table, opposite the Clerks.

  9. tory boy
    03/01/2010 at 12:25 am

    With great respect I do know all that. All i was seeking was to ask why the committee chair in the picture has changed to an office based chair. Look and compare the two links and the different committee of the whole house chairs.



  10. lordnorton
    03/01/2010 at 5:32 pm

    tory boy: I was about to congratulate you on having far better eyesight than me, but then I realised that if you enlarge the picture you can see the top of the chairman’s chair! It is indeed the more formal chair rather than an office chair. I suspect the office chair is wheeled out (literally) on days when the House will be in committee, given that it is much easier for the occupant, who has frequently to rise to put motions to the House and count the voices.

  11. Croft
    04/01/2010 at 11:41 am

    Rather like poll weighting I can see a number of ways one might predict the whip or limit the circumstances you mention for the calculation of the figures. Not counting rebels where less than X members or % of members (10% would work on most of the cases I looked at quickly) voted in a division. Otherwise tying X/X% of backbenchers to X/X% of frontbenchers voting as a double threshold.

    Of course it is possible that you are somewhat of a rebel! Since you’re not an ex-MP you haven’t had your brain removed and replaced by a blackberry, you’re not an ex-mandarin so haven’t been institutionalised to the machine. 😉

    Perhaps intentionally, I’m never quite sure, your posts here are far more obviously Professor Norton than Lord Norton the Tory peer. Indeed as others have mentioned I’m not sure how many people would guess your affiliation by reading your posted opinions.

  12. lordnorton
    04/01/2010 at 6:03 pm

    Croft: As you say, there are various ways one could seek to address the issue. There are some problems with including how a certain percentage of the front bench vote, since this would involve manually having to keep up to date the list of front-benchers, especially demanding on the opposition benches. Keeping track of changes can be difficult.

    There is also the problem of what to do about abstentions. If there is a three-line whip and a member abstains, then that is going against the party line. However, we have no means of knowing definitively who has abstained. Absence from a vote is not necessarily a conscious abstention. The whips in the Commons keep fairly accurate records, but that is not possible in the Lords. Peers may have other commitments or they may have decided to abstain. There have been some votes where a good many front-benchers have decided to be absent – accepting engagements in order to miss the vote. And there are some occasions where it is difficult to classify behaviour. On one occasion, I was delayed on the train and so missed a vote, but had I been present, I may well have abstained.

    I like to think that I am someone who brings my mind to bear on issues. I think that is one of the great virtues of the Lords. I can think and give voice to my thoughts, and let my vote follow what I believe is the preferable path. I am not that unusual. When I chaired the Constitution Select Committee, I took the view that anyone sat in the public seating who tried to work out the party affiliation of committee members, based on their questions, would have been hard pressed to work out which members belonged to which party.

    I must admit, though, that I am a teacher by vocation – and my subject is politics, especially Parliament – so I do tend to see my role, whether in university or the Lords – or on the public platform – as an educative one.

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