Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, "Sodomy, Slaughter, Sunday
Shopping and Seatbelts: Free Votes in the House of Commons,
1979-1996," Party Politics, (January 1997),
The cohesion of British parliamentary parties has decreased
since the immediate post-war period, when Samuel Beer
(rightly) declared that party cohesion 'was so close to 100
per cent that there was no longer any point in measuring it'
(Beer, 1969: 350-1). Beginning around 1970, a significant
behavioural change affected British MPs. They began to
dissent from the party line more often and with more effect
(Norton, 1975, 1980). However, cohesion remains high (Rose,
1983). The vast majority of whipped divisions still do not
witness a single dissenting vote. Even when dissent does
occur it is often very limited. 'The overall picture is one
of relatively frequent but isolated and disparate rebellion'
(Melhuish and Cowley, 1995: 60).
Figures and Tables:
Table 1: IPUs for selected free votes, 1979-95.
Table 2: Labour and Conservative divisions on free votes,
Table 3: IPUs for abortion votes, 1990.
Table 4: IPUs on Sunday trading votes, 1993.
During the debate on hanging that took place in December
1990, one Conservative MP said: "...we [the supporters
of capital punishment] should have waited for the next
general election and an increased Conservative majority. We
would then have got capital punishment through Parliament"
(Hansard , 17 December 1990, c. 110). He was wrong on
two counts. First, that there would be an increased
Conservative majority after the election; and second, that
even if there had been such a majority, the reintroduction
of the death penalty would have occurred. Given the current
split in Conservative voting, it would require 569
Conservative MPs - out of a Commons of 659 - to be elected
for the death penalty to be reintroduced. However, his
argument, albeit implicitly, contained the same argument
that this report has been making. Conscience issues are not,
as often described, non-party issues. They do not 'cut
across party lines'. As we have shown, the dominant cleavage
is that of party. These issues are more likely to cut
down party lines that across them. It is, even
on conscience issues, more likely that the majority of one
of the major parties will be found in the 'aye' lobby facing
the majority of the other in the 'noe' lobby. Similarly, it
is rare to find one vote where both major parties are
significantly split. Conscience issues may split some of the
parties some of the time, but they do not split all of the
parties all of the time. Thus British parliamentary parties
are not artificial constructs, kept in line by nasty party
managers. Divisions between the parties are born of genuine