Myth making

Lord Norton

The extended debate on, and attempts to delay, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill have derived from some misunderstandings.  One, variously expressed over the past few weeks, is that peers have to utilise the power of delay because the coalition now enjoys an effective majority in the House.  However, it doesn’t.  Up to the Christmas recess, there were 31 votes in the House.  The Government lost nine of them.   Even if all the new peers had been introduced, the Government would still not have carried the day on all of them.  It has even been defeated twice on the PVSC Bill. 

 What has happened is that there has been a change in terms of the grouping that holds the balance of power.  In the preceding Parliaments, on paper it was the cross-benchers but in practice was the Liberal Democrats – though fewer in number than the cross-benchers they were more disciplined and turned out in some force for divisions.  Now, both on paper and in practice, it is the cross-benchers.  They appear to be taking their role seriously and turning out in some numbers.  If they divide disproportionately against the Government, the Government is in trouble.

The other claim is that advanced in an earlier post by Lord Soley, namely that constitutional measures should only proceed on the basis of cross-party agreement.  I don’t disagree with this as a desirable goal but it is not a statement of the reality of constitutional change.   Over the past century, since and including the Parliament Act 1911, very few measures of major constitutional change have been enacted on the basis of cross-party agreement.  The Representation of the People Act 1918 is an exception.  Otherwise, the measures have usually been the product of partisan conflict, the Government achieving their enactment in the face of stiff resistance from the Opposition.  On occasion, they have been achieved in the face of attacks from the Opposition and some Government backbenchers.  Edward Heath, for example, had to resort to a vote of confidence to get the European Communities Act 1972 through.  

Our constitution has been subject to significant change on the basis of what the Government of the day proposes.  It has not been on the basis of a parliamentary consensus.  As I say, I am not justifying this.  I am just pointing out the historical reality.

10 comments for “Myth making

  1. Carl.H
    31/01/2011 at 10:58 pm

    My Lord, there is an old saying that two wrongs do not make a right and at this time when we are talking of re-engaging with the electorate and restoring faith perhaps it’s time to remember it.

    “Constitutional measures should only proceed on the basis of cross-party agreement. I don’t disagree with this as a desirable goal”.

    Nor I, it is both desirable and I feel necessary in a time when it is intended to make our politics more transparent and equal.

    The Cross benchers are to be congratulated on their staying power through this and Baroness D’Souza commended for her amendment which has I understand achieved a concession from Government. The public should not only be consulted on powers to the EC but also those on their doorstep that may alter the powers that control them. Public enquiries into boundary changes are at the least the very minimum the subject deserves.

    My Lord, I should also hope to see from Government a concession that limits Ministers to a proportional level or the limits you put forward in your amendment.

    It is time we based our politics on the here and now and stopped looking back, too many times I have viewed the Commons to see arguing using past history which is not relevant at this time. Regardsless of how Mr.Brownleft our Nation or how Mrs.Thatcher did various things it is time to deal with the state of Nation and our politics at present.

    We have what we have and it is time to create a fair and robust system from it without laying blame for past failures. It is time to move forward, to put the faith back into that which is called the legitimacy of Parliament, the electorate.

  2. Gareth Howell
    01/02/2011 at 9:11 am

    “Edward Heath, for example, had to resort to a vote of confidence to get the European Communities Act 1972 through”

    Or did he decide that he was going to, whether he had to or not?

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      01/02/2011 at 10:11 pm

      Gareth Howell: The parliamentary arithmetic was such that he decided it was necessary. Although some Labour MPs were prepared to abstain, the Government whips could not be certain of how many Conservatives would vote against or abstain.

  3. Carl.H
    01/02/2011 at 3:50 pm

    Best I disagree here too as well as the noble Lord Norton of Louth’s own blog.

    Excuse the copy & paste.

    The House of Lords, as of 9 January 2011
    Labour – 233
    Conservative – 204
    Liberal Democrats – 83

    As far as the three main political parties are concerned Government have a clear majority.

    Crossbenchers – 182

    I seem to remember someone quoting a figure that crossbenchers voting was along 20% of it’s membership. If that is true, at present I am unable to find the statistic, the Government do have a majority especially knowing the crossbench will often divide.

    In this instance a lot of crossbench members were in attendance but I have no figure available to me. We also have to take into account it is actual members in attendance when a division is called and that is a difficult one to predict.

    Has the Government a majority in the House ?

    In partisan terms, yes.
    In actual membership, no.
    In statistical weight of numbers based on voting turnout, yes.

    “One of the most immediately notable features of the Crossbenchers
    is their low voting record. Despite their large numbers, the average
    Crossbench turnout in ‘divisions’ in the eight sessions since the
    chamber was reformed in 1999 was just 21 members, or 12% of those
    eligible to vote.” P.41

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      02/02/2011 at 3:26 pm

      Carl.H: As discussed on ‘The Norton View’, the cross-benchers seem to have a different attitude in this Parliament and seem to turn up in numbers when significant issues are before the House. Ministers cannot necessarily take the House for granted, having now to keep an eye on the cross-benches and on the benches behind them. This has been apparent already and I suspect will be apparent as we proceed, not least on measures such as the Public Bodies Bill.

      • Dave H
        02/02/2011 at 5:48 pm

        That’s the way it should be, with the government needing to convince a neutral/sceptical audience that what it wants to do is better than the alternative.

  4. David Boothroyd
    01/02/2011 at 4:17 pm

    The European Communities Act 1972 is a poor example to choose because, while there was strong opposition from the Labour Party frontbench, the backbench Labour pro-European MPs made a covert agreement with the Heath government whips that they would be mysteriously absent during the votes on key stages. The Labour pro-Europeans were being unofficially whipped by John Roper, now your coalition colleague Lord Roper. So this was a cross-party agreement of a sort.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      01/02/2011 at 10:10 pm

      David Boothroyd: I know, this is a point I make in my forthcoming article in Parliamentary History on the European Communities Act. However, it remains a good example of a Bill passed under opposition from the Opposition (in favour of the principle but opposed to the details) and Conservative backbenchers (opposed to the principle). The Second Reading was made a vote of confidence to ensure it was backed by Conservative MPs (though 15 still voted against and 5 abstained) but also had the effect of encouraging Labour MPs not to enter the Government lobby.

  5. Carl.H
    01/02/2011 at 8:41 pm

    The average crossbench vote across this Parliament stands at 20.39%.

    The Highest voting figure was 48.2% on Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (4th Day)

    The lowest was 1.0% Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill — Committee (4th Day) (Continued) — 13 Dec 2010 at 22:38

    Analysis suggests the Government do indeed have a majority even if the Crossbenches vote against Goverment with their average turnout.

    Rebellions are necessary for the Government to lose or a larger than average Crossbench vote wholly in rebellion against Government.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      02/02/2011 at 3:27 pm

      Carl.H: “Rebellions are necessary for the Government to lose or a larger than average Crossbench vote wholly in rebellion against Government.” I agree, or a combination of the two. I think that is wholly appropriate.

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