Lords vote on constituency boundaries: when is a defeat a defeat?

Last night in the Lords, the government’s Electoral Registration and Administration Bill was amended, to delay the planned boundary review of Commons constituencies (which was previously agreed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011). In short, this was the Liberal Democrats wreaking their revenge on the Conservatives for the collapse of Lords reform. 72 Lib Dem peers voted in favour of the amendment, and it passed by 300 votes to 231.

This is undoubtedly a major blow for David Cameron and his Conservative colleagues. But was it a government defeat? The Independent reports it as a ‘bruising defeat on the Government’, but the Guardian more cautiously avoids using the D word in this way, only suggesting that should Cameron try to reverse the decision in the Commons he ‘would be defeated’, while the BBC makes no mention of the word at all.

For those of us who monitor parliamentary voting, this episode presents a dilemma. While commentators can skirt around the word, we need to decide whether this was a government defeat or not. The Constitution Unit’s website has long provided a breakdown of government defeats in the House of Lords as they happen, but this doesn’t quite fit the category. While the Conservatives whipped in favour of keeping the legislation as it was, the Liberal Democrats whipped against. Those voting for the amendment included Lib Dem ministers. Party leader Nick Clegg had made clear his intention to scupper the proposals when Lords reform was dropped, and defended his peers’ decision today, as the BBC story reports. This was clearly not a government win, and nor was it a free vote, but when the Deputy Prime Minister himself is applauding the decision, it can hardly be described as a defeat either.

Like us, the House of Lords authorities keep a running total of government defeats. Their own website chooses to describe this as a government defeat, on the basis that the government Chief Whip acted as a ‘teller’ for those wanting the bill to stay as it was. But the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip (who is also the government Deputy Chief Whip) was among those voting for it to change. I do not criticise the decision of the House of Lords’ authorities: they had to decide very quickly which way to jump. The support of the government Chief Whip is normally a pretty definitive indicator of the government’s position. But we are now in new territory, where the government – at least on certain matters – has no unified position. It seems that we need a new category for such parliamentary decisions. We have chosen for now to call this a ‘coalition split vote’. Comments and alternative suggestions are welcome below. It would be particularly interesting to know how such episodes are viewed in other jurisdictions more familiar with coalition government. The British are novices at this stuff.

This peculiar episode illustrates two more interesting things: the first is how little attention the media pays to the House of Lords. Had Liberal Democrat ministers gone through the division lobbies against their Conservative colleagues in the Commons this would have been huge political news. But because it occurred in the Lords, it didn’t even make last night’s BBC headlines. The second interesting factor is why this didn’t happen in the Commons. Cameron does not have the numbers in the Commons to overturn the decision, so it is not just a numbers issue, and he is unlikely to overturn the decision. But the second chamber’s culture of ‘self-regulation’ was crucial to this vote. The clerks’ official advice had been that the amendment was ‘inadmissible’ because it was ‘not relevant to the bill’. But peers decided to vote for it anyway. In the Commons such an amendment would have been ruled out of order by the Speaker and MPs would have been denied a chance to vote on it. In the Lords, all poor Leader of the House Lord Hill of Oareford (who has only been in post for a week, following Lord Strathclyde’s resignation) could do was plead with peers to follow convention (see here, column 490).

A Bad Omen for Ministers

Mark D’Arcy’s BBC article citing our research on Lords Defeats

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16708362

Last night’s well-telegraphed government defeat in the Lords, on the proposed household benefit cap in the Welfare Reform Bill, is a bad omen for ministers as they contemplate the forthcoming orgy of detailed legislating in the Upper House.

This is the 29th defeat inflicted on ministers by their lordships (according to this invaluable site run by the UCL Constitution Unit) and there seems a growing prospect of many more before the Parliamentary year is out. Peers have one more day of report stage debate on that bill, but then it’s the Health and Social Care Bill, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the Scotland Bill – all bills which where different groups of peers, approaching the legislation from different angles, plan pitched battles.

The first point to note is that this was a defeat inflicted primarily because Lib Dem peers rebelled or abstained – their normally solid voting bloc split into 39 voting with the government, 26 against and 26 not voting. Labour and the Conservatives both managed a respectable turnout of their peers – each group voting the party line, with very similar numbers of non-voters (67 Conservative peers and 64 Labour did not vote).

And the crossbenchers, often a key factor in government defeats, split more or less evenly on this occasion, with 41 voting with the government and 38 against. Five Bishops and a sprinkling of “others” voted against the government as well.

The voting figures reflect Labour’s numbers advantage – 239 peers, compared to the Conservatives’ 219. When the Conservatives and the 91 Lib Dems combine the Coalition can normally muster a comfortable majority – although it can be trumped by the 187 crossbenchers, on the rare occasions when they all or mostly vote in one direction.

Last night the Lib Dem dissidents included several eminent figures – former leader Lord Ashdown, SDP founder Lady Williams, former SDP leader Lord Maclennan and the former Chair of the Social Security Select Committee (as it then was) Lord Kirkwood. More humble figures rebel with more confidence when they are following such party elders into the lobbies. And, as we know from the Commons, those who rebel once become far more likely to repeat the trick.

So the government’s prospects for a whole flotilla of major bills now depends on the Lib Dem whips’ ability to re-assert party discipline – and some senior figures seem quite content at what one called “last night’s controlled detonation”. But the other factor is the possibility of a big net vote against the government by crossbenchers – a distinct possibility when the big votes come at report stage on the Legal Aid Bill and the Health and Social Care Bill. That could result in many more defeats even when the Lib Dems don’t split.

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