UK GE 2019 part 1

Just a few thoughts on the General Election result here in the UK.

One concerns an issue that seemingly differentiates the UK from lots of other nationalities in how we present the result. It concerns the winning party’s “majority”. Consider the UK House of Commons, with 650 seats (and lets totally ignore the influence of the speaker and Sinn Fein whose MPs refuse to take their seats for simplicity). In theory 326 seats gets you a majority of one. But in the UK we would say:

“The overall majority is two”.

Why? Because in a typical vote in Parliament, when MPs follow the whips in their party, we’d observe an overall majority of two (326 vs 324). I’m aware that in the USA and elsewhere the logic is as follows:

Only one MP needs to “defy the whips” to lose the majority. So the majority is ONE. The source of confusion comes from the expression (which I EXPLICITLY saw used in a major website) “defy the whips”. I worked in mathematical psychology for most of my career in the academic and commercial sector. I am VERY specific about the definitions of words and phrases, especially when they have mathematical and/or psychological/practical choice implications.

An MP in the UK can “defy the whip” either by abstaining or voting against their party. The implications can be VERY different. Which is why you MUST qualify your meaning. Historically, before BREXIT came along, “defying the whip” in the UK House of Commons was much more commonly done by abstaining. If a reader has official Hansard based statistics disproving this I will happily defer but two MPs have told me this personally. If you’re interested why, take a look at a typical UK parliament in the post-war period. The governing party has a surprisingly large number of its MPs being “in the government”, if not as ministers, then as PPSs to a minister (and thus subject to ministerial obligations if he/she wants to keep their job and go up the greasy pole). The fraction of the parliamentary party that are thus “in govt” can be as high as TWO THIRDS! So if you want to defy the whips you tended to abstain – a far less egregious (and career-ending) move than “vote with the opposing party”.

Thus, whilst the UK and non-UK ways of quoting the majority are both right, which is appropriate depends on convention in a given country. In the UK, abstention is the common way to defy the whips, so using the “overall majority of two” is the more realistic measure of how likely the government is to lose a given vote: typically TWO abstentions are required to lose a majority. So the UK rule of “doubling how far the winning party went over the line” is actually, IN PRACTICE, pretty logical, since IN PRACTICE, MPs defying the whip will abstain. You can afford up to that number (double the number “over the line”) abstaining before you lose. Conversely, 99% of the time the difference between the votes (when all MPs follow their whips) will be TWO (the “double figure”). Why would the UK use the “single figure” of ONE when that happens only 1% of the time?

In the BREXIT world things have begun to change. MPs now “defy the whip” more often by outright “voting with the opposing party/parties”. Which makes the other way of thinking more logical. So a majority of one. If just one MP actively votes with the opposing side you lose your majority. But historically, overall, it remains the case that abstention is the “way to defy the whip” rather than “cross the floor”.

So please, if you’re going to discuss the UK “majority” observe how we generally define it. Or if not, be VERY CLEAR YOU ARE DEFINING IT DIFFERENTLY!