Free Votes: Not as free as you might think

There’s been much ado about the Marriage (same-sex couples) Bill going through parliament currently. The bill passed second reading on a free vote by 400 votes to 175 with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats sufficiently cohesive to form party votes – a term used more often in the more rebellious US politics where ninety percent of the party votes the same way* – but the Conservatives pretty much split in two.

This isn’t terribly unusual in free vote terms. In fact, it’s possibly more noteworthy how united Labour and the Lib Dems were! Regardless of this, it’s very rare when free vote issues are not essentially party issues, where the majority of the governing party and loyal opposition go through different lobbies, as Cowley discussed in his 1997 article Unbridled Passions? Free votes, issues of conscience and the accountability of British members of parliament.

This is why Tory MPs are likely to be disappointed when they expect the House of Lords to cause trouble over the equal marriage bill. Currently, the Lords is a hung chamber: Conservatives hold perhaps a third of the seats, Labour another third, the Lib Dems a tenth and about a quarter to the Crossbenchers. In previous votes on issues like this – the equalisation of the age of consent – the vote split largely on party lines. That was reflected in later whipped votes on civil partnerships and gay adoption.

Labour and Lib Dems are likely to swing behind the gay marriage bill in large numbers. The Conservatives will likely split against (though I wouldn’t like to bet on the precise ratio of pros/antis). The Crossbenchers usually split sixty-forty against any government bill if I remember correctly, but tend to be more liberal on social issues so I expect them to split behind the bill perhaps 70-30. So it seems to me its passage is relatively assured. Peers can and probably will delay proceedings but ultimately the votes are there to pass equal marriage.

I bring this up for a number of reasons. Partly because Justin Trudeau, prospective leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has swung behind free votes for any bill except budget bills, throne speeches and manifesto bills (ahem, of course that still covers most bills). Partly because an article came up in the Globe and Mail talking about how Canadian party cohesion is the highest in the democratic western world**.

Essentially I’m not saying ‘free votes are pointless’. They have their place. I’m just saying don’t expect them to revolutionise politics. Especially if there’s not pressure from within the party to make the vote free. I just think there are better ways of changing the culture to promote independence than giving free votes.

*At a guess, at least 99% of votes in the British House of Commons since at least 1900 and probably before have been party votes. There was a brief period between 1920 and 1939 where it is probable the House of Lords achieved a lower percentage but I don’t have the data to hand and as fascinating as it would be to know for sure (I’m not even kidding) I can’t be bothered to go through a quarter-century of Hansard to check.

**Incidentally, I’m not sure if you can really compare countries of British descent with roll-call votes as standard with many European countries which don’t as a matter of course record who voted for what. So there’s a bit of a grey area there. Certainly though it is extremely high!

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