Heathrow Third Runway: How they voted
Gordon Brown came close to crashing to defeat on a Tory motion calling for a rethink on plans for a third runway at Heathrow.
The arithmetic looks like this: the Government won by 297 votes to 278, its majority of around 60 slashed to just 19. But the story behind the vote is more dramatic and colourful. First, Labour MPs claim a "tearful and dewy eyed" Prime Minister called the Labour waverers into his Commons office one by one and pleaded with them to back the Government. "If we lose this vote it will de-stabilise the Government and de-stabilise the markets," said the embattled Prime Minister, according to one MP who voted with the Tories despite the emotional appeal.
My quick calculations tell me that of the non-English MPs that voted, 72 voted 'No' with the Government and 29 voted 'Aye' against the Government. Basically Gordon Brown mobilised his Scottish and Welsh chums against England, and chucked in the DUP for good measure.
...just hours after a Democratic Unionist MP received a sympathetic response from Gordon Brown at PMQs to a plea to jettison controversial plans to compensate families of terrorists in Northern Ireland as well as their victims, five of the nine DUP MPs voted with the Government. You'll recall that the DUP rescued the PM from defeat in the Commons vote on 42-day detention for terror suspects last year. This time, without those five votes - leader Peter Robinson, ex-leader Ian Paisley, Willie McCrea, David Simpson and Sammy Wilson - the Government's majority would have been in single figures.
And if only English MPs had voted the Government would have lost by 40-odd votes.
Having now had time to look at the figures.
If only English MPs had voted the Government would have lost by 250 to 230 votes, a margin of 20 votes.
Taking just the votes of non-English constituency MPs, 28 voted with the Government and 67 against.
Therefore 52% of English MPs voted against the Government and 48% voted with the Government.
And 29% of non-English MPs voted against the Government and 71% voted with the Government.
Across the country the general public are opposed to a third runway by a margin of 13%, so English constituency MPs appear to be better reflecting public opinion while non-English constituency MPs are flying in the face of public opinion. Why the disparity? The Constitution Unit at University College London may have the answer. Between May 2005 and June 2007 CU researchers analysed data from almost 500 votes in the House of Commons. It revealed that Scottish Labour backbenchers rebelled in an average of 1.8% of votes, compared to an average of 3.4% for their English counterparts and 1.9% among Welsh MPs.
According to the Constitution Unit the "most significant factor" in explaining this phenomenon is that Scots MPs vote through unpopular Government measures that do not apply north of the Border because they face no external pressure from their constituents or local party.
It would be wrong to suggest that Scottish electors do not care about the issues surrounding the Heathrow debate, but the fact is that they elect an MSP to the Scottish Parliament to represent them on Transport, Planning and the Environment. Therefore, a Scottish MP looking to advance his career by voting with the Government can be reasonably sure that his constituents will disregard his voting record on matters that have no direct effect upon Scotland.
Perhaps the most famous case of Scottish MPs overturning the legitimate democratic wishes of England was the controversial 2004 top-up fees vote which the Government won by five votes. What really rankled was not the fact that Scottish MPs had overturned the wishes of English MPs on a matter that concerned England, nor even that New Labour had reneged on their 2001 Manifesto pledge: “We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them”. No, what really rankled was the rank hypocrisy of the Scottish Labour Party which opposed top-up fees in Scotland yet voted for them in England.
The Leader of the Labour Group in Scotland is Iain Gray MSP. However, thanks to a quirk of the Labour Party constitution, the Leader of the Labour Party in Scotland is Gordon Brown, who also happens to be the Leader of the UK Party. The interesting thing about Gordon Brown's leadership of both the Scottish and UK Labour parties is that he might well pursue polar opposite social policies for Scotland and England. It's very likely that Gordon Brown will be defeated in a general election, or ousted from power by his own party, before another vote as contentious as the top-up fees vote comes along, but if not he could find himself in the invidious position of proposing progressive policies for Scotland and punitive measures for England.
The rationale for this behaviour is that Scotland should be allowed to pursue policy choices that are different from England, that are right for Scotland, and which command popular support in Scotland. Few people can have any argument with that. But surely England too should be allowed to decide for itself, to decide what is right for England in accordance with our democratic wishes. So why then do Scottish MPs vote on our legislation? No one in Scotland votes for Gordon Brown to represent them in areas like Health and Education because those are matters for MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and no one in England votes for him to represent their interests on those policy areas either. So by what right does he govern and vote on Health and Education in England?
There are those that believe that too much is made of this so-called 'West Lothian Question'. The English can live with the odd piece of legislation going against their democratic wishes every now and then – for the sake of the Union. And perhaps they are right, perhaps we can tolerate it.
But it's not just the odd bit of unwanted legislation that is foisted upon England, it's an entire government. Non-English MPs prop up an unpopular and unwanted government that governs England in its entirety. Votes like top-up fees, foundation hospitals, 42-days detention and the third runway at Heathrow were only won with the aid of non-English MPs. Losing votes like these is what breaks governments. And when you consider that the Conservatives won the plurality of the English vote at the last general election, you begin to see how very undemocratic our system is. Not only is England denied the government of its choosing, the chances of us kicking out the government that we don't want is compromised by the very presence of non-English MPs in the parliament that governs us.
Do we just ban non-English MPs from voting on English legislation, or do we also ban them from the electoral college that selects and sustains our government; English votes, or an English parliament?
Should Scottish MPs be permitted in Cabinet, to govern England now that Scotland has a government of its own; or should there be separate English and UK executives?
And should we also bar Northern Irish MPs on the same basis, and the Welsh too if the Assembly gets legislative power?
These are the stark choices that the national conversation must tackle and I'm sure we all look forward to hearing Ed Milliband's thoughts on the matter. He's tipped as a future leader you know!
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