Why do government MPs rebel more? Strategic party disloyalty in the House of Commons

Despite high overall levels of party cohesion, rebellions occur relatively frequently in the House of Commons. In a new paper Jonathan Slapin, Justin Kirkland, Joseph Lazarro, Patrick Leslie and Tom O’Grady examine rebellions in the period from 1992 to 2015. They find that rebellion is much more common among government than opposition MPs and suggest that this is because disobeying the party whip is a strategic act, used by MPs to differentiate themselves from their party when this is most electorally useful. Tom O’Grady summarises here.

The history of the Westminster parliament is full of colourful rogues whose independence from party leaders seems to endear them to the public. MPs like Dennis Skinner, who have often rebelled against their party leaders – and use parliamentary speeches to emphasise their independence – seem to have a special place in British voters’ hearts. This is increasingly backed up by academic evidence. When survey respondents are asked to pick between potential MPs, they tend to opt for candidates who won’t just slavishly toe the party line. The public seems to likes independence in it MPs, and wants to see more of it. This begs the question of why MPs choose to rebel, and how constitutional features encourage or discourage MPs from going alone. Our new paper sheds new light on this question by examining rebellions and speeches in the House of Commons from 1992 to 2015, encompassing Conservative, Labour and coalition governments. The key pattern that we highlight is that opposition parties experience far fewer rebellions than governing parties.

This isn’t driven by what might seem, at first glance, like the most obvious explanation: perhaps governments experience rebellion simply because governing parties are larger and more ideologically diverse. Instead, we compare rebellious behaviour amongst individual MPs when they are in government to rebellions by the very same MP when they are in opposition. In fact, the same MPs rebel much more often when in government. We measure MPs’ ideological positions, too, and demonstrate that these patterns are driven by the most ideologically extreme MPs, whose behaviour changes the most from government to opposition (the recent period under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party is an important exception – which I return to below). Moreover, when rebellious MPs dissent, they do it loudly and publicly when in government, but quietly and privately when in opposition. We find that the most rebellious MPs devote nearly three times as many parliamentary speeches to explaining their rebellious votes in government than they do when in opposition.

Take Phillip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering. During the 2010-15 coalition government, he was the most rebellious MP in the House of Commons, rebelling on 19.9% of total votes, a remarkable figure in Westminster where party cohesion is typically very high. He rebelled despite the fact that the vast majority of the government’s agenda moved policies in his preferred ideological direction. He was even willing to rebel against his party on votes containing core conservative principles, saying that they did not go far enough. In 2013, he went so far as to vote against the Queen’s speech. It was the first rebellion by government MPs against their own agenda since 1946. Hollobone, along with three other Conservative MPs, instead put forward an ‘alternative Queen’s speech’ outlining policies such as bringing back the death penalty, privatising the BBC, and banning the Burqa. But when the Conservatives were in opposition facing a Labour government, he rebelled against his own party leadership almost five times less, just 4.3% of the time. Why is this the case?

Existing accounts of rebellions try to understand what features of MPs cause them to rebel. More extreme MPs, and MPs who have been removed from the frontbench or passed over for promotion tend to rebel more often. They are the ‘rejected, ejected and dejected’, as one study memorably called them. But to explain why those very same MPs behave so differently in opposition, we need to look at properties of the Westminster system, not just MPs themselves. Rebellious behaviour is explained by more than just the individual incentives and characteristics of MPs.

Parties in Westminster, and other parliaments like it, face a key tension: while dissent is valued by the public and can be electorally useful to MPs, governments cannot govern without a relatively united party. Losing an electoral majority means that the government itself could fall through a vote of no confidence, making rebellion a costlier activity for MPs. We think that rebellion, even amongst highly ideological MPs, is done strategically rather than indiscriminately. They rebel when it is most likely to be useful electorally.

So when is rebellion useful to MPs, and when is it not? In general, MPs want to signal their independence to voters, but their ability to do so through their votes hinges crucially on whether their party is in power. When in opposition, it is much harder for MPs to use their votes as a signal of independence and to connect with voters or factions of their own party, because voting against their own party means that they must vote for the government. A highly partisan left-wing Labour MP would have a hard time stomaching the idea of voting for a Conservative bill or motion. Such votes might look like support for the government, or might help it pass policies that are very far from what the MP wants. But when in government, it is much easier for these MPs to signal independence through voting by ‘grandstanding’, as we call it. There is usually little risk of helping the other party pass its policies, and MPs can readily explain their behaviour to constituents. They might argue – and indeed often do argue – that they broadly like what their party is doing, but that it isn’t sufficiently ideologically pure for their tastes. And they can do so without voting for the other party. This explanation for differences in dissent between governments and oppositions is highly consistent with our evidence from speeches, too. When rebels rebel in opposition, they tend to keep very quiet about it. But in government, they are much more likely to pair their rebellious vote with a speech that might get them media coverage, or can be featured in publicity materials to constituents.

This explanation is important not just for what it tells us about MPs and their behaviour, but also for the constitutional lessons that it holds. It suggests that constitutional changes will have an impact on both the extent and type of rebellions seen in the Commons. A key influence on rebellion, we argue, is government agenda control. Because the governing party almost always controls what comes on to the Commons agenda, a situation necessarily emerges where government MPs will find it easier to rebel than opposition MPs. Yet this was not always the case. Government control of the Commons agenda has increased over time, most notably in the nineteenth century, when governments began to wrest control of the Commons from backbenchers to reduce the power of Irish MPs. Paradoxically, a likely consequence of this sort of change, in light of our findings, might have been to increase dissent and rebellion on the back-benches against their own party leaders, because there was more opportunity for MPs to strategically differentiate themselves from party leaders. Today there are periodic calls for backbenchers and opposition parties to be given back some more control over the legislative agenda. Our research suggests that one (perhaps unintended) consequence of such a change would be the opposite effect, making governments more cohesive and opposition parties more fractious, since opposition MPs could rebel more often without voting for the government.

Likewise, the recent Fixed-term Parliaments Act arguably makes it more difficult for governments to fall. This might embolden MPs from governing parties to rebel more than they would have in the past, since it lowers the potential costs of a divided party. If rebellion is partly strategic, this changes the strategy that MPs ought to adopt. Yet we wouldn’t expect any change in the rates of rebellion if dissent is merely an ideological, not a strategic act.

Finally, an obvious question is how our findings apply to today’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Here, the usual pattern of rebellion has been reversed. Rather than MPs from the far left rebelling the most, rebellions under Corbyn have come primarily from ideological centrists such as Frank Field, Graham Stringer and Kate Hoey. We think that our findings primarily apply to ‘normal times’, when party leaders also tend to come from the ideological centre, and they depend on the confidence of the party’s MPs to remain in office. Both of these factors tend to dampen down rebellion by raising the cost of grandstanding by moderate MPs against the leadership. But recent changes to the Labour leadership rules have placed more power in the hands of party members, which may have opened up strategic space for moderate MPs to rebel. With the leaders’ fate more in the hands of party members, rebels have less to fear; their dissent is less likely to imperil the party leadership. These moderate MPs can now connect electorally with their constituents in a way that they couldn’t have done in more normal circumstances, signalling their independence. Again, constitutional structures matter. Reforms like those of the Labour Party that increase the electoral security of party leaders, or their immunity from their own MPs, can give party leaders a tougher time within their own party.

Overall, our results are a reminder of an age-old lesson: there are trade-offs in the design of any constitutional structure. Reforms to one part of the system, like changes in the ability of governments to control the agenda, might have unexpected consequences for the behaviour of MPs. Voters may like independent-minded MPs, but lowering the power of governments to control the House of Commons might only lead to more obedient and less colourful MPs.

To read the full article, ‘Ideology, Grandstanding and Strategic Party Dissent in the UK House of Commons’, please click here.

About the author

Dr Tom O’Grady is Lecturer in Political Science at UCL. The other authors of the journal article are Jonathan Slapin (Essex), Justin Kirkland (Houston), Joseph Lazzaro (Houston) and Patrick Leslie (Essex).

2 thoughts on “Why do government MPs rebel more? Strategic party disloyalty in the House of Commons

  1. Quite interesting…. reading the full article on APSA. In case of India, Rebelling MPs are rare. Even if they rebel either they are expelled immediately or sidelined completely. and the way anti-defection law and the Whip system in India operates plays important role in the exercise of dissent by any MPs or MLAs. How do you see the role of Whip system and anti-defection law in counter-nurturing the dissent voices? or the phenomena of rebelling is intrinsically linked with the political culture of the British Politics that evolved all these years?

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