UK Politics

Voting with the heart - and stomach

  • 18 January 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
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Was it the dinner factor again?

Last night's big Welfare Reform Bill vote in the Lords was a narrow squeak for the government. It mustered a 16 vote majority against Crossbencher Lady Grey Thompson's amendment calling for an independent study and pilot programmes before the new Personal Independence Payment for disabled people replaces Disability Living Allowance. To lose would have been another damaging blow to an already wounded bill.

The vote took place at 7.33pm - and 442 out of a possible 787 peers voted. A comparison between what happened then and what happened in last week's successful rebellion throws up some interesting factoids.

The alliance of Labour, crossbenchers, Lib Dem rebels and Northern Ireland peers responsible for the three defeats last week appears to have eroded a little. The first of last week's votes started at 5.24pm, and the government lost by 44, with 476 peers voting. The second defeat, on the stroke of 7pm, produced a majority of 48 votes against the government with 420 peers voting and the last defeat was in a vote starting at 7.14pm, when the government lost by 56, with 388 peers voting.

My point is: the later the vote, the smaller the turnout.

The key group to watch seems to be the crossbenchers - the non-party independent peers. In last night's vote, 39 of the 186 crossbenchers turned out - compared to 68 in the first of last week's government defeats. And that difference seems to have been the crucial factor. Of course, the crossbenchers are not a party and are not whipped - their vote is entirely a matter of individual conscience.

But sardonic souls in other parties are prone to observe that, as dinner time approaches, they are particularly prone to vote, not with their head or their heart - but with their stomach. Incidentally, four bishops voted against the government last week; none did so last night. Labour whip Lord Bassam tweeted as much - accusing the Work and Pensions Minister Lord Freud of delaying tactics. (Incidentally, given the age profile of their lordships, percentage turnout can be a little misleading - there are always some who can't register their vote because of illness and so forth).

The whipping last night had clearly been intensive. Labour brought 170 of its 239 peers to the wicket and there were just two rebel Lib Dem votes for the amendment - Baronesses Doocey and Tonge. There was a solid Lib Dem turnout against - they mobilised 62 of a possible 91 peers, confirming the powerful party discipline which has always allowed them to punch above their weight in the Lords.

UPDATE: The government, according to strong rumour, is about to make defeats a little less likely, by appointing 60 new peers - 40 Conservatives, 15 Liberal Democrats and five Labour. And no crossbenchers.

Of course, the peerages could prove to be rather short lived, if the Lords is reformed along the lines of Nick Clegg's draft bill, but I doubt there will be any shortage of takers. And it will take the House of Lords to well over 800 members, when there are already complaints about over-crowding.

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