There was a lively article by Fergal Davis on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site last week, arguing that voters in this election should hold their MPs to account for the way they’ve voted. Davis’s concern was civil liberties – but the argument could hold for a range of other things, from abortion to Trident, from post offices to Heathrow. Do we punish (or reward) MPs for the way they vote?
For some of his article, Davis uses a book I wrote in 2005, which looked at the voting record of MPs, and which showed that far from being the spineless bunch that everyone claimed, they were in fact becoming increasingly rebellious, with the Parliamentary Labour Party between 2001 and 2005 being the most rebellious of the post-war era. But the book also showed that there was no evidence that voters took much notice of this when it came to casting votes at the ballot box.
The last election provided almost the perfect conditions to test this. There were plenty of high-profile issues which led to substantial rebellions in the House of Commons and attracted public interest. In other words, there was plenty for voters to get their teeth into, if they wanted to. And there were plenty of organisations and websites designed to encourage exactly this sort of targeted voting, such as www.sonowwhodowevotefor.net (now defunct) or www.vote4peace.org.uk (whose url has now been taken over by an online casino).
Yet a detailed study I carried out into the 2005 election found that both rebels and loyalists performed roughly equally at the polls, with no statistically significant difference between them. The only substantive exception to this was the subject of university top-up fees – where rebels did appear to have performed marginally better at the polls than those who did not defy the whips – but the difference was worth less than one percentage point, and probably helped determine the outcome in just six constituencies. For the most part, it looked as if British voters made their judgment about the government as a whole – not about the behaviour of individual MPs. Where they do vote on the basis of the candidates, it was more on the basis of their constituency service – how much they work the parish pump, responding to queries about Mrs Miggins’s drainpipes – than about how MPs behave in the division lobbies.
Since then, there have been a couple of other, even more detailed, attempts to locate an electoral link. One, by Arthur Spirling of Harvard, claims to identify a difference between the type of issues on which MPs rebel, arguing that government-party voters demand unity on votes that are key parts of the government's programmatic agenda, but welcome more rebellious behaviour on less important issues. The second, by Nick Vivyan of the LSE and his colleague Markus Wagner of Vienna (and to be presented at the forthcoming PSA conference), has looked at the behaviour of individual voters, and claims to have found an effect once you control for the predispositions of voters (in particular, those who were already hostile to the government were more likely to reward dissenting behaviour).
Yet Spirling’s distinction between important and unimportant votes looks too much like a post hoc rationalisation, and there doesn’t appear – to me, anyway – to be much logical distinction between the votes which the electorate seem to identify as important and those they do not. And the problem with the Vivyan and Wagner paper is that if such an effect is identifiable at the individual level, why does it not also show up at the constituency level? Even they acknowledge that the effect is ‘relatively weak and general rather than issue-specific’ (that is, rebellious MPs benefit, regardless of what they rebel on), which is hardly an advert for great electoral accountability.
Perhaps more importantly, 2005 was such a perfect test case for holding MPs to account for the way that they voted that if that is the best that we can find, then we shouldn’t expect much better this time round. Davis was, of course, issuing a call to arms – and good luck to him. The problem is that if you didn’t find much evidence of voters punishing MPs for their voting in 2005, it is unlikely you’ll find it in 2010, when conditions are much less favourable. And, perhaps sadly, certainly not on issues of civil liberties.
Professor Philip Cowley