Backbench Business in the House of Commons – What it does and doesn’t mean

Palestine vote: MPs take historic decision to recognise Palestinian state. That headline is from the Independent on 13 October 2014, the day the vote took place. I applaud this decision; indeed, think this is an immensely important moment. As other papers made clearer in their headlines, the decision is in many ways symbolic.

But the vote, the result, and the weight of that vote all reveal some aspects of the UK democratic process that should have us thinking a bit more deeply.

So here, I want to use this decision to demonstrate some of the flaws in our system.

The Motion

This was a backbench motion. What is that? In 2010, a new committee was set up in the House of Commons called the ‘Backbench Business Committee’. This committee has control over the business of the House for a certain limited amount of time. MPs (who are neither members of the cabinet or the shadow cabinet) can propose debates; the committee decides which of the proposals to give time to.

The motion on the recognition of Palestine was one such debate. It was proposed by Grahame M. Morris, Crispin Blunt, Sir Bob Russell, Caroline Lucas and Jeremy Corbyn. The text of the motion is:

‘That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.’

It was an important issue and the fact that it was debated in the House of Commons marks an important step for British policy on Palestine.

But we have to remember, whatever the outcome of the vote on this motion: it was never going to be binding on the government.

The Debate

The debate took place on 13 October 2014 from 5.46 until 9.56 (i.e. 4 hours and 10 minutes); that is quite a chunk of time allocated to this item. The vote then took another 15 minutes or so.

You can see who spoke and what they said in Hansard. It is quite interesting reading. Importantly, you can see whether your MP was there.

The Vote

So the media highlighted the outcome: a 262 majority in favour of the motion. And this is quite a majority! But let’s look behind the headline.

How many MPs are there? 650

How many voted in this vote? My figures suggest that it was 290 although the numbers reported are 288. There is a reason for that, I think, of which more later.

Anyway, 288 or 290 MPs – that’s just short of 45% of all MPs – that’s not 45% who voted yes, that’s 45% who voted, period. So the other 55% or so didn’t vote. Of course, not all MPs vote in all votes in the House of Commons; but this is a very important issue and you’d think that more than 45% could turn up. If your MP didn’t vote, there’s a very good question you could ask them: why didn’t they vote?

Then there is the question of how people voted. In votes on government business, MPs are subject to what is called a whip. That means that their leaders tell them how to vote. No, it’s not you, their constituents who tell them that, it’s the party leadership. So much for: I want to vote for my MP so I know who represents me. Well, you do, and then they can ignore you because they are subject to the whip.

On backbench business, it’s less clear. On this vote, the Conservative Party gave their members the freedom to vote as they saw fit; Labour put their members under a whip to vote in favour. I’m not sure what the LibDems did with regard to the whip.

So here’s how the parties voted:

Conservative Party: 257 of their number did not vote; 40 voted for the motion; six voted against.

Labour Party: 61 of their number did not vote; 194 voted for the motion; two voted against. But this is another amazing bit of quirkiness of our Parliament.

If necessary voting takes place by MPs physically going through the division lobby; they are counted there by tellers; there have to be two tellers for the yes vote and two for the no votes. In the case of this vote, two labour MPs volunteered to be tellers for the no voter because those MPs who were going to vote apparently refused to put forward tellers. So those two were counted as no votes even though they would have voted yes otherwise.

Here’s the evidence for this; this is an intervention by Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) after the vote has taken place:

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House has voted emphatically tonight to support the recognition of the Palestinian state. That is good news, which will be well received by many people, and we should bear witness to those thousands who marched and demonstrated and those thousands who e-mailed us.

If I may, I will briefly explain why I and my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) were tellers for a position that we do not actually hold. It was to ensure that democracy could take place and that Members could record their vote, because those who were opposed to the motion declined to put up tellers. We have thus ensured democracy here tonight. The constituents whom we all represent will be able to see what influence they were able to have on their Members of Parliament, ensuring that this historic vote took place.

Does this make sense in the electronic age? You tell me!

Liberal Democrat Party: 26 of their number did not vote; 29 voted for the motion; and one voted against.

All the MPs of the Alliance Party (of Northern Ireland), the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP voted and all voted in favour of the motion.

5 out of 8 DUP members voted and voted against the motion.

2 out of 3 SDLP members voted and voted for the motion.

Sinn Fein, three Independents and – much to my surprise – Respect did not vote.

One final thing you won’t like….

Of course, and because I am fully in favour of the UK government recognising Palestine – and I would therefore have favoured a debate that would have been binding on the government – I wrote to my MP informing her of my views.

She’s very good at writing back; though often she doesn’t share my views.

So here’s what she said:

‘The debate that you refer to in your email is a back bench debate and as a Minister without responsibility for this policy area, I am afraid I will not be able to attend. The rules for Ministers strictly prevent me from being able to address the House of Commons on issues that do not concern my own particular portfolio, but I do understand your concerns here and I am more than happy to represent them to my colleagues in Government.’

Brilliant; so because my MP is a government minister, my views aren’t going to be represented – not just because she disagrees with me (and on this, she may or she may not) – but because she is prevented from representing her constituents effectively. The same goes for Early Day Motions, by the way; she has told me before that as a government minister she can’t sign them. That does not seem very democratic to me.

So here’s the deal:

Let us celebrate that the historic vote took place; let us celebrate that there are MPs who are prepared to work hard for this issue; let us celebrate that some of the smaller parties have clear policies and stick to them.

But let’s also reflect on the fact that it is a classic textbook example of some of the shortcomings of the system we call democracy.

And write to your MP and call them on their role in this: did they vote? How did they vote? They’re accountable to you.

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About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
This entry was posted in Behind the Headlines, Constitutional Reform, Politics in context, The mechanics of politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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