by Paul Goodman
This morning's Guardian looks forward to a rebellion over the Government's health reforms at the Liberal Democrat spring conference. A lot's written about Conservative Commons revolts. (I've a piece in the same paper about the new breed of maverick Tory MPs. So it's a good moment to remember that Liberal Democrat MPs, too, are restive.
A paper by Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart on the excellent www.revolts.co.uk website notes that –
"The Lib Dem [rebellion] rate of 28% is higher than that seen by government MPs in all but seven post-war sessions. (It is also noticeably higher than the rate of rebellion seen by Lib Dems in any session for which we have data, going back to 1992-93 when the rate of rebellion was at 9%)…
…Indeed, the whole of the last Parliament – covering five years – saw just 39 divisions in which at least one Liberal Democrat voted against their party line; in just over five months, the total for the 2010 Parliament has already reached 31. We predict that by Christmas Liberal Democrat MPs will have rebelled more often in the short life of the Coalition than in the whole of the last Parliament…
…Thus far, 89 Coalition MPs have so far broken ranks against the Government; 67 of them Conservatives, together with 22 Liberal Democrats. Both are high figures, but in relative terms it is the Lib Dem figure that is the more impressive. The 67 Conservative rebels constitute a third of the backbench Conservative parliamentary party. The Liberal Democrat parliamentary party currently comprises 57 MPs, but of these 22 (or 39%) are members of the payroll vote, either as ministers or parliamentary private secretaries, expected to remain loyal in voice but especially vote to the government. The Liberal Democrat ‘backbench’ therefore consists of 35 MPs. For 22 of these have rebelled against the Government therefore means that a whopping 63% of backbench Lib Dems have defied the whip.
Liberal Democrat rebels are more likely to have cast dissenting votes on social issues, such as the increase in VAT from 15% to 17.5%, the introduction of free schools and the expansion of academies, and curbs to superannuation for civil servants. Conservative-only rebellions make up 46% of the total of Coalition rebellions thus far. Lib Dem only votes make up 34% of the rebellions that the Coalition has faced thus far. Votes in which Conservative and Liberal Democrat rebels unite in common cause against the Government account for only one in five of the rebellions."
However, the authors note that "the lowest Government majority thus far has been 58" – the paper was clearly written before the tuition fees votes – and that the average Liberal Democrat revolt consists of just three MPs.
Does the pre-Christmas date of the paper render its contents out of date? No, for two reasons. First, because the figures stand. Second, because the revolts are continuing: on the website, the authors point out that Liberal Democrat MPs have revolted recently over such issues as postal services, the educational maintenance allowance and the proposed forest sell-off.