Opinion: the reality is a long way from equidistance

We are, said George Orwell, ‘a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans’.  We think we can top that list.  We collect statistics on parliamentary voting behaviour.

And over the last decade we’ve noticed the remarkable change that has come over Lib Dem MPs.  Out of the 182 whipped votes in the last session of parliament, they voted with the Government on just 22 occasions.  Of the votes that occurred on the Second or Third Reading of Bills – what are effectively the votes on the overall principle of the bill – they voted against 94%, backing just one Government bill.

So what?  Isn’t this the point of opposition?  Except that it hasn’t always been like this.  Go back a decade, and you find the Lib Dems sharing their parliamentary favours much more evenly.  In fact, in the first Blair term, the split was about as even as you can get: between 1997 and 2001, Lib Dem MPs voted with the government on 557 occasions, but against on 556 occasions.  You can’t get much more equidistant than that.  And back then, when it came to votes on the principle of government bills, the Lib Dems voted with the Government in 68% of votes.

The ten years since have seen a steady, and almost continuous, rise in hostility towards the government.  By the end of the 2001 Parliament, the Lib Dems were voting with Labour on 25% of whipped votes, and against 75% of the time.  The figures for the first two sessions of this Parliament are just 18% for, 82% against.  Some recent research from the Constitution Unit at University College London revealed a similar transformation in the Lords, where the Lib Dems are effectively the swing voters, from a position where Lib Dem peers were more likely to vote with the government than not during the first Blair term to one in which they were more than four times as likely to vote against the Government by the end of the second term.

Lib Dem MPs we know sometimes complain that this is an unfair way of looking at their behaviour.  Because the practices and procedures of the Commons make it difficult for them to map out an independent policy position, in most votes they are forced into making a tough choice between Labour and the Conservatives.  And just because on one vote they might vote with the Conservatives against the Government that does not necessarily mean that they agree with them.  It might just be that on that individual vote they disagree with the Conservatives less than with Labour.

But given that the Party does have to make that binary choice, over a mass of votes we can still draw meaning from their behaviour.  We may prefer to travel in a chauffeured car, but life’s a bitch, and so we’re forced to use trains and buses.  And if in one year we travelled by train 60 percent and by bus 40 percent of the time and in another year we travelled by bus 90 per cent of the time and train just 10 percent, then no one would doubt that there had been a change in our behaviour.  That is exactly the magnitude of the change to have come over the Lib Dems in recent years.  And it’s a long way from equidistance.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart are based at the University of Nottingham.  They run www.revolts.co.uk, which publishes regular research on parliamentary voting.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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22 Comments

  • Voting against a government proposal does not equal voting for a Conservative proposal. I would be interested to know what proportion of Conservative proposals (amendments, opposition day motions, etc.) the Lib Dems voted for and against. I suspect the party will have voted against – or at least abstained on – a majority.

  • Tony Greaves 14th Jan '08 - 11:52am

    This is the kind of silly article that academics write to justify their wages.

    The stats in the Lords are similar – of course they are. Most of the votes that take place are on government legislation and amendments to it. The amendments that get voted on are (in most cases) those that have some chance of getting passed. Thousands of others never get voted on (or in a remarkable number of cases the government agree with the point made and either clarify their position or produce their own amendment).

    The truth is that on many issues the New Labour government (front bench) is in trad terms to the right of the rest of the House. We vote against them because they are often centralist, illiberal, autocratic, their proposals are impractical – or just plain wrong.

    And by and large on the things we agree with them, there are no votes anyway because even if the Tories don’t agree with them they don’t put the amendmnets to a vote becuase they have little chance of winning without us.

    Tony Greaves

  • Hywel Morgan 14th Jan '08 - 9:44pm

    1997-2001 is the oddity though as for at least 2 of the 4 years of that Parliament we had an agreed common policy platform on several major government bills. That is quite a rare (unique?) position for a UK opposition party to have been in.

  • Grammar PCSO 14th Jan '08 - 10:59pm

    What I don’t understand from this is why anyone is justified in saying “in most votes [the Liberal Democrats] are forced into making a tough choice between Labour and the Conservatives”.

    This is just nonsense and shows, I believe, the rather narrow unable-to-accept-more-than-two-party-mould of the author.

    Surely, Parliament actually forces us into making a choice between voting for or against the Government; nothing more.

    What the Tories, the DUP, Plaid, SNP, UUP, Sinn Fein or even George Galloway do is entirely a matter for them. The policy of “equidistance” is a policy that plays into the hands of those who want to categorise us as either pseudo-Tories or pseudo-Labourites because it imagines that in some way we either have to be one or the other. When really, we’re actually just trying to get it right. Nick Clegg should adopt this approach and use it to to say how pleased we are that the Tories think we’re right so often in how we vote in parliament, and perhaps they would like to join the opposition party that actually has some policies and a sensible Mayoral candidate!

  • Grammar Police 15th Jan '08 - 1:18pm

    Philip, what’s the corresponding figure on LD Opposition day motions? To what extent to Lab / Cons vote with us?

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