Friday, March 17, 2006

The balance of parties in the Commons

In the General Election on May 5 2005 Labour won 356 seats and the Conservatives 197 (The election in the constituency of Staffordshire South was postponed until June 23 due to the death of the Liberal-Democrat candidate. The Conservatives won this seat raising their total to 198). The Liberal-Democrats won 62 seats.

However, the Speaker and his three assistants normally do not vote in the House of Commons. This reduces the number of MP’s to 642. The Speaker is Michael Martin (Labour), and the Assistant Speakers are Alan Haselhurst (Conservative), Sylvia Heal (Labour) and Michael Lord (Conservative). This reduces the Labour total to 354 (356 minus the Speaker and an Assistant Speaker) and the Conservative total to 194 (196 minus two Assistant Speakers).

There have so far been three by-elections since the General Election:
(i) A by-election was held in Cheadle (Cheshire) on July 14 2005 due to the death of the Liberal-Democrat MP Patsy Calton. The Liberal-Democrats held the seat.
(ii) A by-election was held in Livingstone (in Scotland) on 29 September 2005 due to the death of the Labour MP and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. The seat was held by Labour.
(iii) A by-election was held in Dunfermline and West Fife on February 6 2006 due to the death of the Labour MP Rachel Squire. In a surprise result the Liberal-Democrats won the seat. This increased the number of Liberal-Democrat MP’s to 63 and reduces Labour’s total to 353.

In addition there are 5 Sinn Fein MP’s. These MP’s do not attend the House of Commons. This effectively reduces the number of MP’s from 642 to 637.

So in effect Labour has 353 out of 637. The MP’s of all other parties (excluding Sinn Fein) number 284. The Government has an overall majority of 69. If all other parties voted against the Government a backbench rebellion by 35 MP’s would cause a Commons defeat. There are 24 Labour MP’s who are members of the Campaign Group who are frequent backbench rebels (they are sometimes called “the usual suspects”). It takes only 11 more disgruntled or overlooked MP's, or embittered ex-Ministers to reach the "magic figure" of 35. Of course, if Opposition MP's support the Government (as the Conservatives did in the vote on the Second Reading of the Education Bill) it is a whole different ball game. But relying on Opposition votes has its own perils...


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