A while ago I posted on a House of Commons Library paper on apologies in the House since 1979.
Subsequently the Library issued a paper on MPs’ change of party allegiance during the same period. All in all there were 174 incidences of changing allegiance, an act which consists of either having the party whip removed, making the MP ‘independent’, or switching to another party entirely.
Looking through the document it becomes clear that, while some of the changes of allegiance are removals of the whip due to such individual indiscretions, it serves as an indicator to some of the more turbulent times in recent British parliamentary history.
The first thing to catch one’s eye is the large number of MPs switching to the newly-formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. These included two of the SDP’s founding ‘Gang of Four’, David Owen and Bill Rogers, as well as future (and last) SDP leader, Robert Maclennan. All those switching were Labour apart from a single Conservative, one Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (no, me neither).
Interestingly Bruce Douglas-Mann MP switched from Labour to ‘Independent SDP’, which one can’t help thinking is taking things too far, although this was apparently due to his making the unique (among SDP converts) decision to resign his seat and seek re-election at a by-election. This wasn’t welcomed by the SDP leadership who initially said they wouldn’t fund his campaign. Douglas-Mann lost the by-election lost again in the 1983 general election, and again in 1987. He gave up after that.
The SDP still exists by the way, although oddly for a party whose name is an abbreviation it seems to struggle with them: “We will encourage the creation of industrial clusters in Special Economic Zones (SPZs) for relatively depressed areas” – right…
In September 1991 Dave Nellist and Terry Fields were both expelled from the Labour Party for being members of the Militant tendency. Nellist apparently briefly shared an office with Tony Blair following the 1983 general election, but given their differing views, this was a short-lived arrangement…
Then there were the eight Conservative MPs who had the whip withdrawn owing to their voting against the EC Finance Bill in November 1984 (plus Sir Richard Body who resigned the whip in protest in support of the others).
Government interventions in the Middle East post-2001 also caused some changes, for example Labour MP Paul Marsden changed to Lib Dem in December 2001, due to his opposition to the war in Afghanistan, but then subsequently re-joined Labour in April 2005. George Galloway changed to his own Respect Party in October 2003, having been expelled from the Labour Party for views expressed on the Iraq war.
Moving on to February 2019 there was another significant chunk of defectors, this time eight Labour and three Conservative, to form a new independent group of MPs, becoming Change UK in April that year (and from July, The Independent Group for Change – TIGC). Six of these then changed to plain old Independent in June 2019 following the poor performance of CUK in the European elections. Two of those (I hope you’re keeping up), Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston, then changed to Lib Dem, in June and August 2019 respectively, to be joined by most of the others later that year. All those still in Parliament lost their seats in the 2019 General Election, and TIGC itself was dissolved in December 2019. Not a happy story, really.
No fewer than 21 Conservative MPs had the whip withdrawn in September 2019, following their voting for an emergency motion to allow the House of Commons to undertake proceedings on the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill on 4 September. Ten of these had the whip restored in October that year, the rest remained Independent and stood down prior to December 2019 general election, with the exception of Sam Gyimiah and Antoinette Sandbach, who swapped to the Lib Dems, but then lost their seats.
The 21 MPs also included Rory (or to give him his full name, Roderick James Nugent) Stewart, who incidentally is the author of a very good book, relating the story of his walk across Afghanistan in early 2002.
On the individual side, there are unsurprisingly correlations between those who had the whip withdrawn and those giving apologies, including our friends Ron Brown and Stephen Byers (the latter of whom surely missed a trick by not creating a new Taxi Party). Another particularly notorious episode involved Ann Winterton MP, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn in February 2004 on account of making what the Guardian described as “offensive, tasteless and arguably racist joke” concerning the more than 20 Chinese workers who drowned whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay.
Overall the whip was withdrawn 76 times, from 73 MPs, with three being punished more than once. The latter include Chris Williamson, Labour MP for Derby North, who had the whip withdrawn in both February and June 2019 (the latter just two days after he’d had the whip restored) due to views expressed relating to accusations of antisemitism within the Labour Party. He subsequently lost a high court bid to get the second suspension overturned.
The other two were Labour’s Denis MacShane (who was subsequently imprisoned for fraudulent expense claims) and Conservative Charlie Elphicke (recently convicted of sexual offences). Overall MPs resigned the whip 31 times, with six of them doing so twice.
The most recent change is Dr Julian Lewis, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn and became Independent after managing to outmanoeuvre the government’s preferred candidate, Chris Grayling, to become Chair of the intelligence and security committee. This led the Scottish National party’s shadow defence secretary, Stewart McDonald MP, to comment: “With his abysmal record of failure as a Tory minister, Chris Grayling is the only man who could lose a rigged election.”
Who knows what the next change of allegiance will be, but Parliament never disappoints in terms of incident, so we can only watch and wait…