This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.
This week Dr Kathryn Rix writes about the opening up of parliamentary information in the 19th century. TheyWorkForYou is twenty years old, but in many respects is a digital continuation of similar projects and arguments about parliamentary transparency that go back centuries.
Learning more about this history helps situate our work in the longer context – and this period (with league tables of MPs, arguments about league tables of MPs, and a clear illustration of the link between changes to the physical building and transparency), is one with obvious application to our work today.
On 22 February 1836 a landmark vote took place in the House of Commons. It was significant not because of the issue involved – a local railway bill – but because for the first time, MPs left the chamber to vote in two separate division lobbies, following which an official division list was published, recording the names of every MP voting in the majority and minority.
The publication of these official lists from 1836 made it far easier for those outside Westminster to scrutinise and assess the activities of their representatives. One Radical MP described this change as “perhaps one of the most important measures ever sanctioned, as a check upon the conduct of members”.
Before this ground-breaking division, the official records of the Commons gave only the names of the tellers who counted the votes in each division, and the total number of MPs voting on each side. The Commons had just one lobby, so when divisions took place, the presumed majority stayed in the chamber to be counted there, and the presumed minority went out into the lobby.
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The informal record
Although there was no official record of how each MP voted, some MPs – notably the Radical backbencher Joseph Hume – compiled their own lists of divisions and supplied these for publication in the newspapers. However, these unofficial lists were usually produced only for more important divisions and sometimes gave the names of those in the minority, but not the majority. They were notoriously inaccurate, and MPs regularly wrote to the press correcting errors.
Pressure to improve this system and publish a full official record of every division increased after the 1832 Reform Act, the first major reform of the British electoral system. One of the Act’s key aims was to restore public confidence in government by making the Commons more responsive and accountable to public opinion. In this spirit, the Radical MP Daniel Whittle Harvey put the case for official division lists, arguing that:
“every person now acknowledged that responsibility, and not secresy [sic] and concealment, was the basis of the trust reposed in the hands of Representatives by their constituents … In a Reformed Parliament he believed, that all hon. Members would be desirous that their constituents should know how they voted”.
A select committee in 1834 felt the best option for compiling accurate official division lists would be to construct a second division lobby, but the cramped conditions of the Commons chamber made this impractical. However, when MPs moved into temporary accommodation following the catastrophic fire at Westminster in October 1834, this obstacle was removed. The additional second lobby, which facilitated the publication of official division lists, was built during the 1835-6 recess. It became an integral part of the Commons and was replicated in the new Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry.
Use by newspapers and journalists
Information extracted from the official division lists was widely reproduced and analysed in the newspaper press, as well as in guides to MPs’ voting behaviour, such as An Atlas of the Divisions of the House of Commons (1836), which listed every MP’s vote in the 1836 parliamentary session in a tabular form. Such analysis of MPs’ votes was not entirely new. Richard Gooch’s The Book of the Reformed Parliament (1834) had tabulated MPs’ votes in selected divisions in 1833 and 1834, and had been used at the 1835 general election to challenge MPs in several constituencies about their attendance levels at Westminster. MPs had, however, disputed the accuracy of Gooch’s publication, based as it was on unofficial records. At Droitwich, where his opponent calculated that he had voted in just 11 of the 116 divisions listed by Gooch, John Foley insisted that his votes “had been given much nearer ninety-nine times than nine”.
Extract from Atlas of Divisions (1836)
The publication of official division lists meant that MPs could no longer try to shirk responsibility for particular votes by claiming that they had been misreported. Another highly significant development was that, with all divisions fully recorded, accurate calculations could be made of how many times MPs voted each session. The Atlas displayed these totals against each MP’s name, a novel feature which one commentator tellingly described as “a scale of diligence” by which voters could measure “the conduct of representatives”.
Rankings and league tables
National and local newspapers compiled and dissected figures on MPs’ attendance levels on a weekly and annual basis, making it much easier for voters and the wider public to access this information and use it to call MPs to account. While annual attendance statistics sometimes listed their names alphabetically, it became common for MPs to be ranked alongside their colleagues – either nationally or regionally – on the basis of how often they had voted, producing what were effectively ‘league tables’ of MPs. The Gateshead Observer referred to its annual attendance tables of north-eastern MPs as a ‘parliamentary audit’ or ‘reckoning day’. MPs had been accustomed to explaining to their constituents how they had voted, but increasingly also found themselves having to justify how often they did so.
For those MPs who appeared towards the top of these tables, these statistics provided welcome proof of their diligence. After being ranked as the fifth most attentive MP during the 1840 session, Henry Salwey, MP for Ludlow, was praised by his supporters as “most assiduous, and most constant – ever vigilant in promoting … the local interests placed in his care, and the general welfare of the community”. In contrast, other MPs and their supporters rejected attempts to reduce their Commons contribution to mere numbers. At the 1841 Hertfordshire election, the voting record of the Conservative MP Abel Smith was compared unfavourably with his Liberal opponent, who had voted three times more often. One of Smith’s backers argued, however, that “we don’t count the number of divisions – we look to the importance of them: we don’t wish our member to sit through every paltry discussion – as though nailed to the benches”.
The reaction of the quantified MP
The question of how useful these attendance figures were as a measure of MPs’ commitment to representing their constituents was widely debated during the nineteenth century. The Morning Chronicle was not alone in mocking the idea that an MP’s “whole duty … consists in walking in and out of the lobbies”. It was pointed out that notable figures such as Lord John Russell (a former prime minister) – who voted in 28 of 198 divisions in 1856 – and William Gladstone (a future prime minister) – with 58 votes that session – would be found lacking if judged only by this measure. The ‘Division-list Test’, as one MP labelled it, failed to take account of MPs’ contributions in other areas of the work of the Commons, particularly in serving on committees. Although one Worcester newspaper noted the relatively poor attendance of the local MP, Joseph Bailey, in divisions, it observed “in justice” to Bailey that “his labours on Committees have been incessant”.
There were other reasons why voting in numerous divisions was not necessarily seen as demonstrating dedication to parliamentary business. The influx of MPs from the smoking or refreshment rooms when the division bell rang, without having heard the preceding debate, was often commented upon.
Such behaviour prompted the Conservative MP Charles Adderley to argue that there could be “no worse test of a man being a useful member of Parliament”, since “a man might attend every division… and be the idlest dog in the House”. Another argument against testing MPs’ diligence in this way was that the overall totals did not distinguish between critical issues and less significant matters, such as local or private bills which did not affect the MP’s constituency. William Scholefield, generally seen as a hard-working representative, told his Birmingham constituents that he had deliberately abstained in many such cases, since “I will never vote on a bill unless I distinctly know what I am going to vote about”. Yet while the use of the “Division-list Test” could be challenged in various ways, it continued to be seen as a useful indicator for constituents in deciding whether their representatives had been attentive or neglectful in carrying out their parliamentary duties.
Images: ‘Division barrier and lobby’ and it is taken from pg. 409 of J. Ewing Ritchie, The life and times of William Ewart Gladstone. The pictorial edition Volume I.
Dr Kathryn Rix is Assistant Editor of the House of Commons, 1832-1945 project at the History of Parliament Trust, which is currently researching electoral and parliamentary history between 1832 and 1868.
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