Recording abstentions

Lord Norton

When a vote is held in the Lords, there is no means of recording abstentions.  It is far from uncommon for peers who disagree with their own side to absent themselves from a division.  However, when a peer’s name does not appear in the division list,  it is usually impossible to know whether that peer is unavoidably absent (abroad, on a train, or whatever) or is present in the House but making a conscious decision to abstain.  On occasion, the abstention may be obvious because the peer remains seated in the chamber throughout the division.  Such occasions, though, are the exception and not the rule.

Formally, the same applies in the Commons, but MPs have found a way round this.  An MP wishing to abstain and to put this on the record does so by voting in both lobbies.   The MP’s name is published in both the Aye and the No lobby.  However, in the Lords, this is not possible.  If any peer does vote in both lobbies, the name is removed from the division lists.  

This happened in one of the divisions last night on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill.  As Hansard records: ‘The Tellers for the Contents reported 162; the Tellers for the Not Contents reported 223; the name of a noble Lord who voted in both Lobbies has been removed from the voting lists.’    I suspect it may well have been a former MP who has recently joined the House believing they could repeat the practice utilised in the Commons.  Whether we should think about going down the route of allowing names to be recorded is another matter.

16 comments for “Recording abstentions

  1. 10/02/2011 at 11:12 am

    I’ve never quite understood why abstentions shouldn’t be recorded formally. Doing this may have the knock-on effect of encouraging more abstentions, but I think overall most people (including myself) would support encouraging more people to express disagreement in public when they feel it in private.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      16/02/2011 at 9:42 pm

      Mark Pack: The problem, as noted in some of the contributions below, is a practical one of how to record abstentions formally, especially if abstention is the action recommended by a party. If there a few peers wishing to abstain, one could devise a mechanism but if, say, a hundred or so wished to abstain then there are difficulties.

  2. Carl.H
    10/02/2011 at 11:24 am

    The abstentions cause a statistical nightmare and it is extremely difficult to research the workings of the House without the knowledge.

    I was pleased to see a division the other evening with over 500 taking part. I was quite impressed.

    Abstentions and the lack of knowledge about how many and why makes it difficult to formulate what would be a preferred number of members in the House. We’ve spoken of electronic voting before but this means the member not being present to listen to debate and argument. Clearly wrong in my opinion though it would probably be safe to say few change their minds because of debate – but a few is all it takes at times.

    Registering abstentions from those present would be helpful but only to a minor degree. One could I suspect use the record book of those claiming expenses for a particular day to assess the probable abstentions but it would not be completely accurate.

    There are times I know when noble members have alternate committments and cannot be in the House when they should have liked and would not have abstained. It is an enigma and I cannot see a fair and accurate way of getting the data.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      16/02/2011 at 9:44 pm

      Carl.H: Exactly so. It would need to be a formal method of recording abstention if one were to generalise about the scale of abstention, otherwise it is difficult to work out when a non-vote is an abstention or an unavoidable absence.

  3. 10/02/2011 at 11:40 am

    So the fact that someone abstained is recorded, just not who it was. Therefore it’s not entirely pointless to walk through both lobbies.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      16/02/2011 at 9:45 pm

      Jonathan: It would be a problem, though, not least for the clerks, if a large number of peers wished to record their abstentions.

    10/02/2011 at 1:25 pm

    Pray, what would be the difference(s) between such an abstention failing as Lord Norton reports there is in (a Democracy)Parliament, and the kind of abstention necessarily practised by an elector as a reasonable action when his/her essential Needs & Hows, and constructive-submissions, have been, still are, and/or likely will be in the imminent future, not only not constructively responded to but at any time effectually ignored or distorted beyond recognition ?
    1325Th100211. 77 words.

    11/02/2011 at 1:58 am

    I always thought it’d be easier to simply add a third category of “No comment” or whatever, and let both the Commons and Lords use this when they don’t want to vote for whatever reason.

    Why would that be impossible to Implement? I mean, the Government seems intent on sweeping reforms that abolishes a centuries old constitution that works perfectly well to erect a newer one out of a sense of fashionable democratic twaddle, but they can’t do useful reforms like add a Third Category to a sheet of paper?

    • 12/02/2011 at 12:17 am

      Zarove: there is no sheet of paper on which to add a third column. It would actually require finding space to add an extra voting lobby to each chamber, which is impossible without damaging the historic fabric of the chambers.

      Also, the point of an abstention isn’t when they don’t want to vote, but rather when they do want to vote but not for either of the available options.

  6. Twm O'r Nant
    12/02/2011 at 9:30 am

    ‘Tis a good thing it does not apply to the general election ballot box with FPTP!

    Somebody might want to belong to both parties as well, which is a petty crime in these islands, but common practice in the USA.

    Let’s have AV or AV+ !

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      16/02/2011 at 9:49 pm

      Twm O’r Nant: Some electors have been known to spoil their ballots.

  7. Twm O'r Nant
    12/02/2011 at 9:33 am

    ‘Tis a good thing it does not apply to the general election ballot box with FPTP!

    Somebody might want to belong to both parties as well, which is a petty crime in these islands, but common practice in the USA.

    My brother ran a campaign in Kentucky,
    “Kentucky Republicans for a Democratic President”

    They lost heavily and won handsomely. Kentucky always went against the
    incoming president, but for the first time, he is THEIR MAN!

    Let’s have AV or AV+ !

    • Carl.H
      13/02/2011 at 12:23 am

      AV+ ?
      Now I told you, just one and I’ll choose it. If you don’t like it you can go without and go to your room. When you’re big you’ll be able to make your own choices but for now you must do as you are told. I know AV+ is better but your not getting that….No we’re not even going to talk of PR…Now do you want FPTP…I mean AV or not ?

  8. ptgowadia
    14/02/2011 at 1:18 pm

    Surely, the easiest way to record an active abstention would be to allow the Clerks at the Table to record it, as all peers wanting to vote Content or Not Content would be in the lobbies. Hence, any peer remaining in the Chammber and wanting to let his absention be recorded can bring it to the attention of the Clerks. The abstention need not be declared in the results, but can be printed in the Hansard for the day.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      16/02/2011 at 9:49 pm

      ptgowadia: The problem would be if a large number of peers wished to record their abstentions in this way – it may be a rather overwhelming task for the clerks. It is complicated by the fact that any peer with mobility problems can remain in the chamber and indicate to the clerk how they wish to vote, so the cerk would have to spend time finding out which peers are abstaining and which are remaining in the chamber but wish to record a vote.

    14/02/2011 at 2:41 pm

    Jonathan, you took my words too literally. I only mean the record. Why is it impossible o find a mean by which one can put down “Abstain” or something in the record? I’m not certain how amending the record keeping process would damage the Chamber.

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