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?

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Legislation at Westminster – and how parliament matters more than many people think

The Westminster parliament is famous throughout the world, but often presented as relatively non-influential when it comes to making the law. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover‘s new book Legislation at Westminster is the most detailed study of the British legislative process for over 40 years, and challenges these assumptions. Here the authors summarise their findings on how different groups of actors at Westminster exercise subtle and interconnected influence, contributing to what they dub ‘six faces of parliamentary power’.

The Westminster parliament inhabits one of the most famous buildings in the world – emblematic both of Britain and of stable democracy. Yet when it comes to policy-making, and particularly to making the law, many see Westminster as relatively non-influential. In the popular media, parliament is frequently portrayed as a mere ‘rubber stamp’, where a docile Commons majority approves what government puts before it. Among academic authors views are generally more nuanced, but a mainstream public policy textbook nonetheless claims that ‘parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’, while a recent British politics textbook suggests that ‘the House of Commons is misunderstood if viewed as a legislator’. Even scholars who celebrate parliament present the early stages of initiating and formulating legislation as ‘overwhelmingly a government-centred activity’. Despite the ostensibly central role of the ‘legislature’ in the legislative process, these specialists instead emphasise parliament’s other crucial functions, such as representation, scrutiny and legitimation.

Perhaps because it is thought likely to be fruitless, but also due to the painstaking work involved, until recently no large-scale study had been conducted on influence in the Westminster legislative process since Griffith’s classic 1974 Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills. Griffith’s key finding was that many government amendments proposed to bills in parliament in fact responded to earlier proposals from non-government parliamentarians – showing that influence was more complex than it seemed. A major Constitution Unit project, funded by the Nuffield foundation, sought to explore how these dynamics may have changed, and specifically whether the ‘rubber stamp’ claim is correct. Our early quantitative results, based on study of over 4000 amendments to 12 case study bills passing through parliament during the period 2005-12, showed that it was not. The majority of government amendments with substance were traceable to parliamentary pressure, while the ‘failure’ of non-government amendments could not be taken at face value. Our newly-published book, Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law, tells a fuller story, drawing not only on amendment analysis, but also wider documentary analysis, and over 100 interviews with those closely involved in the passage of the 12 bills.

Part of the difficulty in assessing parliamentary influence is common perceptions of power. Looking for on-the-record changes wrought by parliament provides only a very narrow view. But it is often acknowledged in the politics and international relations literature that power takes many forms. One classic account suggests that it has three distinct faces, others that it has four or more; there are notions of hard and soft power, persuasive versus coercive power, and the ability to exercise power both positively and negatively. Such alternative conceptions have rarely been teased apart when discussing the power of parliaments.

Our study is organised by the various ‘actors’ in the policy process at Westminster, each of whom has a dedicated chapter. After introducing the basics of the legislative process and the case study bills, we go on to describe, using numerous quotations and examples, the diverse contributions that these actors make. This post provides a very short summary of our findings.

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The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence

Meg-Russell

The UK parliament continues to be dismissed as powerless in many academic and popular accounts. Drawing on a large body of quantitative and qualitative research conducted over more than 15 years, a recent article by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley argued that the Westminster parliament is in fact an institution with significant policy influence. Meg Russell summarises here.

In the study of public policy, legislatures tend to be portrayed as relatively weak institutions. This applies to the UK parliament in particular. The classic comparative view associates the Westminster model, of which the UK is seen as the emblematic case, with centralised executive power and an acquiescent legislature. Assumptions of Westminster’s weakness are not, however, confined to comparative scholars or to the recent past. In a 2011 article Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso traced gloom-laden statements of British parliamentary powerlessness back over a century and more. Meanwhile, a public policy textbook published in 2012 reflected the view of many scholars in the field when stating that ‘Despite the name “parliamentary democracy”, the parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’ (p. 139).

Yet in recent years scholars specialising in the study of the UK parliament have found evidence of significant parliamentary influence on the policy process. This may in part be due to changes in parliamentary structures and behaviour, but also simply result from more exhaustive research approaches. I have contributed to this literature through my work on the House of Lords, and the policy impact of the Westminster parliament. Professor Philip Cowley has also contributed greatly, particularly through his work on the Commons. In a recent article in the journal Governance we drew these various strands together – using four large quantitative data sets, complemented by more than 500 interviews with key parliamentary and government actors – to demonstrate that Westminster’s influence is both substantial and probably rising. We conclude that parliament’s critics make two key mistakes – by concentrating largely on the decision-making stage of the policy process, and focusing almost exclusively on visible parliamentary impact (e.g. government defeats on legislation). We broaden the focus to take into account both visible and less visible impact, with a particular interest in anticipated reactions. Our arguments are summarised in this post.

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