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What Price a Vote?

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The UK Parliament’s Public Account Committee recent report Smaller Government asks important questions: at its core is the challenge that in a time when Public Departments and Local Authorities are each facing huge cuts in their budgets and, concomitantly, increases in the already hefty number of the nation’s unemployed it is right that the same ‘efficiency finding’ scrutiny be applied to the Ministers responsible for seeing this revolution (for good or ill) through to completion.

The Story Now

The Public Account Committees recommendations only hints at the damage the present Liberal Democrat-Conservative Government can bring to UK democracy. To understand why one has to understand something of how the House of Commons works. Made up of 650 MPs there are, on the face of it, more than enough MPs to hold off any bills the consensus of the House would consider detrimental to the UK’s interests. However, if you take into account the fact that the there are 91 MPs who are also Ministers (including Secretaries of State and the PM – the rest of the 121 Ministers is made up of members of the Lords) then the balance of power shifts as all of these votes are all but certain not to rebel against any given change of law or motion. Before as the starting gun is fired the opposition already has a 14 percent handicap to overturn.

The Public Accounts Committee may be right that 121 Ministers is a few too many but a 14 percent handicap while not fair is not exactly an egregious unfairness either. It is where the Parliamentary Private Secretaries are thrown into the mix that Parliament begins to resemble less a forum for the free, frank and robust exchange of views and more the Cartel.

In November 2010 the Government disclosed that there were a total of 46 PPSs none of whom are ever likely to vote against any motion put forward by their masters which would jeopardise their chances of attaining Ministerial office themselves (the PPS are traditionally where the ministers of tomorrow are plucked from). So, taking a look at the electoral math again we find that a 14 percent handicap is too conservative a figure. 91 Ministers added together with 46 PPS gives a block of 137 dependable ‘yes’ votes which equates to a 21 percent head start (if a PPS votes against the Government they are obliged to resign). Assuming every MP votes in a bill or motion – which actually never happens – a motion would only need to pick up 189 votes from the 513 still on the table. In other words, to pass a bill through the House of Commons only 29 percent (189 votes) of all the votes available need to actually be convinced of its merits (since the other 21 percent are effectively bought).

The Story Tomorrow

So far, so bad. The less than openly democratic process I have presented so far is unfortunately only the beginning of the the democratic challenge the current system promotes, and it is one the Public Accounts Committee have only hinted at. If the proposed electoral boundary changes are successful then the number of MPs will shrink to 600. The esteemed political columnist Michael White may think the changes are “trivial” but I don’t agree – they are potentially catastrophic for UK politics. Changes proposed to cut the number of Ministers in line with the reduction in the number of MPs failed. There is then the very real prospect that the number of Ministers and PPSs will remain the same in spite of the lower total. Using the same calculations at above this would mean that:

  • 137 (23 percent) votes out of the total needed for an absolute majority would be all but guaranteed
  • Only 164 votes would be needed out of the 463 ‘free votes’, this equates to a mere 35 percent of free votes needed to be in favour of a motion.

In fact, these figures are too generous. There are seats and votes that are never utilised (e.g., Sinn Fein, and the Speakers of the House) which means the actual figures are worse and this is without factoring in the votes of those who are seeking the next available PPS seat and so vote accordingly. Democracy in the UK may not be in terminal decline.  The recent debate on Hillsborough for example shows there’s life in the old girl yet but the House of Commons is not a picture of health either, and it looks like things could get even worse.

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About Cdenck

  • Pretty interesting Article, even with the Distraction of the eighteenth Century-style random Capitalisation.

    Your maths seems to me to be a bit off somewhere, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. You also neglect to factor in the role of whips, whose job it is to keep MPs in the party line, by means of terror if necessary. (Remember Francis Urquhart in House of Cards: “I put a bit of stick about; I make ’em jump.”) Obviously their effect can’t be quantified, but it is significant even in the most divisive and emotive of votes.

  • You’re right on whips but I do think they’re power is often overemphasised (the recent Europe vote is a case in point).

    The problem with the way I’ve put the argument is it assumes everyone is present for a vote. Anyone who has watched parliament will know that never happens. Add to that the fact that Ministers have jobs to do and if they broke off from their business at every vote no work would be done (notwithstanding constituency work). That means the figures are not actual ‘head starts’ but I opted to put it the way I did because it does show the basic power differential that can be brought to bear.

  • Elaine

    Amazingly insightful comments. Learned alot from you both.

  • If every MP had the attitude toward his or her job that Dennis Skinner has, not only would Parliament be a far better place but your maths would also be more reliable!

    In contrast to Skinner, who in over 40 years in the Commons has scarecely ever missed a vote, far too many MPs regard their service as a hobby. My old MP (thankfully long since retired (and now deceased)) was notorious for that.

  • I’m a big fan of Skinner too.