Do the bishops in the House of Lords actually change anything?

When 0.8 of a bishop turns up to each vote (on average), it's hard to argue they have a substantial effect.

In the wake of the Church of England's vote to continue banning women from being bishops, there have been renewed calls to remove bishops from the House of Lords. This e-petition, for instance, argues that:

The Church of England on 20th Nov 2012 voted not to allow women to be Bishops. Though that is within its rights to do, this should worry the Government as Church of England Bishops are awarded legislative power through seats in the House of Lords.

The Church has chosen to be a sexist organisation by refusing women the right to hold highest leadership positions and therefore should not be allowed automatic seats in the House of Lords, as this clearly does not comply with the spirit of UK Equality law.

But does it actually matter that bishops are in the House of Lords? Clearly, I'm not talking about points of principle; having a religious organisation in the House of Lords is as symbolically wrong as having a hereditary monarch as the head of state. It represents a Britain which hasn't existed for a very long time, and actively denigrates many people's conception of their own nationality.

But do the bishops in the Lords actually affect anything? A 2007 paper from UCL's Meg Russell and Maria Sciara, titled "Why Does the Government get Defeated in the House of Lords?: The Lords, the Party System and British Politics" suggests not.

There are 26 bishops seats in the house of lords (although that number varies occasionally due to deaths and retirements, and currently only 25 are present). That is out of 760 seats overall, and compares to the 212 Conservative, 225 Labour, and 90 Liberal Democrat peers. In other words, if turnout were 100 per cent, and party lines held all the time, the bishops would never matter – the vote would go to the coalition every time.

The first snag are the crossbenchers – 176 peers who aren't affiliated with any parties. But even they don't affect the outcome all that often. Of all 806 whipped votes in the Lords between 1999 and 2005, the crossbenchers changed the outcome just 50 times. That is, if they had not voted, 37 defeats would have been turned to victory, ten defeats would have been turned to a draw, two victories would have been turned to a draw, and one draw would have been turned to a victory.

The second snag, and the one the parties battle with most frequently, is turnout. In the same period, the mean turnout for Labour and Liberal Democrat peers was just over 50 per cent, and while it was just 34 per cent for the Tories. For the parties, boosting turnout is by far the most important way to win votes. Once the whipped lords actually turned up, they tended to vote with their party, with 97 to 99 per cent cohesiveness.

In this sleepy chamber, where do the bishops fit in? The authors write:

The Bishops’ impact… is limited by the fact that they are a small group, and that like the Crossbenchers they vote relatively little, and do not vote as a cohesive block.

Most of the time, there is only one bishop at each vote (they actually have a formal rota, apparently), and their mean turnout is just 3.2 per cent. As in, four-fifths of a person. Only ten times in six years were there votes with more than five bishops attending (only 66 times with more than one):

The largest turnouts were 11 votes on the balloting of grammar schools in 2000 (when nine Bishops supported the government and two opposed), on the Civil Partnerships Bill in 2004 (eight supporting, two opposed), and on the Learning and Skills Bill in 2000 with respect to sex education guidelines to replace Section 28.19.

So there aren't many bishops in the lords, and they rarely turn up. Which is why it's not a surprise that, over 806 divisions and six years, only three times did the bishops make a difference. Twice, the government was defeated by one vote when the sole bishop voted against it, and once the government was defeated by one vote when three bishops voted against it:

This was over the issue of education of asylum seekers’ children, where an amendment moved by the Bishop of Portsmouth required that such children are taught in a school and not separately in a detention centre. Three Bishops attended and voted against the government, and it lost the division by one vote.

When it comes to the simple legislative arithmetic, it is largely irrelevant whether we have bishops in the lords. A dodgy batch of mussels in the House of Lords' restaurant would probably have a greater material effect on the outcome of divisions that the lords spiritual do.

There are, of course, benefits for the bishops which are harder to quantify. Being peers gives them the ability to lobby others more effectively; and there were almost certainly times when the threat of defeat caused the government to change its legislative program pre-emptively.

Nonetheless, those fighting to remove Bishops from the Lords are doing the right thing by focusing on matters of principle, such as equality and secularity. When it comes to substance, there really isn't a whole lot to object to.

Bishops, and an archbishop. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.