Thanks to all on Twitter who ReTweeted the link to the previous post – much appreciated! A couple of people have asked why an MP would speak opposing the Bill and then vote for it… There are as many answers to that question as there are voting MPs (especially on yesterday’s dismal attendance), and they vary depending on how cynical you want to get – but at the heart of it are these two principles:
- Parliamentary (and legislative) procedure is a game. It’s a process with rules.
- As @iglazer so pithily put it recently: “in any game, gaming the rules is one of the rules of the game”.
Voting for something you apparently oppose, at its second reading, may look irrational to us, but then, so might a chess player who sacrifices a piece early in the game; they may know something we don’t about the subsequent moves.
To take the analogy a little further: in the parliamentary chess-game, we are pawns (if that). That may be an uncomfortable idea, but think of it like this: have you ever written to your MP? The vast majority of people have not. If you have, have you written more than once? Still fewer voters have written to their MP on more than one issue.
In other words, to MPs, the vast majority of constituents are either completely silent (off the board) or ‘single-issue lobbyists’ (pawns, with only one move). [Oh boy, this analogy is getting scary: how to pawns make a difference? Either by acting in concert with each other, or by making that long and risky journey to the other side of the board and getting elected. Sorry, promoted.]
Anyway, back to the rules. An MP like Austin Mitchell can honestly say that he stood up in the house, made his own objections clear, and represented the views of those of his constituents who wrote to him. Knowing that Labour have an over-all majority, and that the party whips had made it clear members were expected to support their party’s policy, he can then also say that a single rebellious vote would not make any difference to the Bill’s passage.
While their constituents are ‘single-issue lobbyists’, MPs have to live with their whips throughout their career – and deal with them on every issue, not just one. If you are of the philosophy that “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets oiled”, that may be a good thing. If your view is that “the nail which stands out gets hammered in”, it is less appealing. (By all accounts, Mr Mitchell is a serial nail, by the way – and much respect to him for it. I would say “more power to him” – but that’s not how it works).
When I said above that “a single rebellious vote wouldn’t make any difference to the Bill’s passage”, I chose my words carefully. In particular, I didn’t say that it would make no difference to the Bill’s contents. There is clearly a delicate line to tread, particularly in the early readings of a Bill, between obdurate opposition and careful negotiation.
By expressing strong reservations about some clauses, but agreeing to the over-all tenor of the Bill, some MPs will clearly be hoping to get concessions on some of the specifics. As one insider put it to me: “There is horse-trading, but very little and generally around fine detail”. Again, the government’s over-all majority simply means that, by the rules of the game, there is minimal chance of overturning the legislation as a whole. Those MPs who can be bothered can at most hope to press for some deferrals or qualifications.
Regrettably, most of them are already captivated by the new shiny thing (an election campaign) or slinking away from the old, tarnished thing (a bankrupt government, presiding over a discredited parliament).
I’ve quoted this before (Otto von Bismarck, disputedly), but it doesn’t get any less apposite:
„Je weniger die Leute wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie!“
“The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep”.