We’ve been running a project, at Nottingham, looking at backbench dissent for the last seven years. Late last year, it revealed that Labour MPs were on course to be the most rebellious group of parliamentarians in the post-war era (anyone who can’t face the full report can read this summary, from Progress). And, in January, we showed how the Conservatives were much less likely to vote against government legislation than people thought (again, anyone who doesn’t want to read the report can read its coverage in the Times or on ConservativeHome). And occasionally, it’s even benefitted charities, when people are prepared to bet their opinions against our evidence.
The final session of a parliament – as we approach the election – rarely produces much rebellion. MPs tend to keep schtum, for fear of the electoral consequences of division. With the exception of Tuesday’s vote on AV – which will cause a split in the Parliamentary Labour Party – it’s likely that the fag-end of this parliament will be relatively quiet in parliament, and so people are looking ahead, to the situation after the next election.
The biggest change will be the number of new MPs in the Commons, especially on the Conservative side of the House. A Conservative majority government, with a working majority, could see almost two-thirds of Conservative MPs newly elected. In part, this has been caused by the expenses scandal, and the rash of decisions to stand down from the Commons that have followed. But, even before expenses (see this article from January 2009), it was clear that any new Conservative government would have a very high number of new MPs, simply as a result of the huge increase in the number of MPs they require. They currently have fewer than 200; a bare Commons majority after the next election needs 326.
Whilst lots of attention has been on how this is going to be positive for parliament – fresh ideas etc – there are good reasons to be much more sceptical. Our work has consistently found that new MPs are less likely to rebel, and much more likely to do as instructed by the party whips, than are more established MPs. There are lots of reasons for this, but the cause is pretty constant. In 1992, for example, the new Conservative MPs were the most Eurosceptic, but they were the least likely to vote against the Maastricht bill. In 1997, the vast number of new Labour MPs were half as likely to vote against the whips as their longer serving companions. We suspect that the massive increase in new MPs may lead to a period of relative calm on the backbenches, at least for the first few years of a Conservative government.
Professor Philip Cowley