Huppert Check Fact Check – and the meaninglessness of parliamentary voting stats

April 16, 2015 § 10 Comments

So, recently I’ve been linked a few times by Labour activists to a website called HuppertCheck.info (http://huppertcheck.info) which claims the following “In deciding which party to back, voters will be interested in the record of the current Liberal Democrat MP, who is standing for re-election. Here we describe how Julian Huppert voted on key issues over the last five years.”

The site, as it fails to mention until you dig to the “about” page, is run by Labour activist Tom Yates, and is designed to attack Huppert’s record. Whilst it would be better if he’d actually put his affiliation more prominently, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and there are occasional times when the website makes entirely reasonable points.

But then there’s this graph, on the “An Independent Voice?” page. There’s a lot wrong with it, not least that percentages of votes are a meaningless statistic anyway (for reasons I’ll explain later). But that’s not really the major problem. The major problem is that the graph below, on Julian Huppert’s voting record, is false. It is a straight-up lie.

The above is simply untrue.

What they’ve done is taken the number of “rebellions” from the Public Whip website here. What they’ve totally ignored is the following statement, on the Public Whip site, about what their rebellion figures mean:

“Rebellion” on this website means a vote against the majority vote by members of the MP’s party. Unfortunately this will indicate that many members have rebelled in a free vote. Until precise data on when and how strongly each party has whipped is made available, there is no true way of identifying a “rebellion”. We know of no heuristics which can reliably detect free votes. See also the next question.

So actually, 912 is the number of times that Julian Huppert voted with a plurality of other Liberal MPs. That includes free votes – it also includes times when the Liberal backbenchers rebelled en masse, and times when the Liberals were whipped to vote against the Tories. As such, some examples of votes that are included as “supporting the tories” in HuppertCheck’s 912 figure:

  • Julian Huppert voting for the Affordable Homes Bill, which would have created bedroom tax exemptions anywhere where local councils were unable to provide alternative accommodation, and for many disabled people. All but one Tory voted against it.
  • Voting against Trident renewal in January 2015, opposed by Labour and the Tories.
  • Getting the equal marriage bill passed, in the face of Tory opposition.
  • A Lib Dem bill amendment that would have triggered by-elections when MPs were convicted of misconduct in public office. Both Labour and the Tories voted against the Lib Dems to block this.
  • Voting to block a Tory motion that would have promoted abstinence as a basis for sex education in schools
  • Julian voting on a free procedural vote on changing the times when the House of Commons sits on Tuesdays (which, once again, was opposed by more Tories than voted for it).

In other words, the graph does not show what it purports to, and includes a huge number of bills where the Liberals, or Huppert personally, voted against the Conservative party. The 912 vote, 97% figure given is a straight-up lie.It gets worse, though. Because this is not an honest mistake. Labour KNOW the above is a lie, because they have a different figure printed on their leaflets. A figure which puts Huppert’s rate of voting against the Tories up from three percent to voting against the Conservatives in nearly one in five votes. The Labour activists promoting this website have been delivering leaflets saying one figure and promoting HuppertCheck telling a direct lie that contradicts it.

Edit and clarification 01/05/15: HuppertCheck have now amended their page to give a more accurate representation of the data. I also wish to clarify, in case anyone was confused by the above, that I do not think that Tom Yates himself was knowingly lying or knew that Labour were promoting a different figure printed on their leaflets; I do, however, stand by my statement above that other Labour activists who were delivering the leaflets almost certainly did.


So, part two, some points on why this figure means relatively little anyway.

  • Most bills are only passed on their third reading; voting for the first or second reading of a bill only puts it in for further scrutiny. As such, it would be possible to oppose pretty much a government’s entire legislative agenda and still vote alongside them over sixty percent of the time.
  • The government votes figure is inflated by the presence of amendments purely designed to derail a motion, or by motions which are just frankly silly. For example, the government has to vote every year to charge certain taxes. The opposition generally vote against these motions – Labour literally voted against charging corporation tax and income tax at all several times in this Parliament. These, and the flip-side of opposition day motions that do the reverse, push these statistics up and achieve pretty much nothing.
  • There are also times when all the parties vote the same way, so the figures in the graph above include a number of motions that Labour voted in favour of.
  • And of course the Lib Dems did get to write some of the legislative agenda. The voting system referendum alone took thirty divisions to sort out, all for a measure the Tories ultimately opposed.
  • There’s also the fact that MPs don’t turn up for all votes (Julian’s figure at 77% attended is pretty high), and they’ll usually be more likely to appear for ones they think are important. Liberal MPs are, unsurprisingly, going to go through and vote on amendments (which is one thing that really boosts the figures here) far more carefully on Lib Dem sponsored legislation, whereas they might de facto oppose a whipped Tory-sponsored vote simply by not bothering to turn up.
  • Divisions aren’t everything Parliament does. Petitioning ministers, doing local casework, sitting on select committees to write reports on legislation, and things like Early Day Motions are all other parts of an MPs work.
  • What this means is that what’s important is less how many times you rebel, but where and when you do so. Julian has, for example, rebelled on the important third reading of the Health and Social Care Act over worries that it would lead to too much NHS privatisation, to vote against capping welfare increases below the rate of inflation, and to oppose secret courts, among other things.

Some conclusions: I’m not going to pitch this as a “therefore you should vote X way”. All I’m going to ask is two important things of you, dear reader.

  1. Please for goodness’ sake do not share HuppertCheck’s website until they have removed the above graph, and preferably until someone’s apologised for knowingly lying about this. Regardless of your political preference, it’s dirty, disreputable politics. Edit 01/05/15: As of now, HuppertCheck have amended their figures. Whilst I still consider their numerical voting percentage stats to be a very poor indicator of an MP’s independence or lack thereof for the reasons given above, their new numbers are, at least, more accurate. 
  2. Vote on the basis of what an MP supports, and don’t trust party partisan stats unless you really know what they mean and what the source data is. If you think that Julian voting to scrap EMA, to support Osborne’s budgets, and to initially introduce the Bedroom Tax are unforgivable, then you might want to consider voting against him. On the other hand, if you think his opposition to Tuition Fees, secret courts and NHS privatisation, his efforts to ameliorate the Bedroom Tax, and his advocacy for trans issues, cycling, and other things that get little airing in Parliament outweigh that, you might want to support him for re-election.

But don’t decide on the basis of meaningless statistics – especially when they turn out to be a direct lie.

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§ 10 Responses to Huppert Check Fact Check – and the meaninglessness of parliamentary voting stats

  • Archy de Berker says:

    Interesting post. Thanks. theyworkforyou.com seems to be a fairly unbiased place to find statistics about your MP’s voting habits (as far as I can tell…)

    • jubalbarca says:

      Both theyworkforyou and public whip are worth looking at, but it’s important to know what you’re looking at! The stated intentions of bills often aren’t the whole story of why a bill is there and what it’s doing, which can skew websites like these that automatically aggregate votes. For example, it’s customary for the opposition to vote against supply bills to try and bring down the government, but this would show up on aggregation measures as “Labour voted not to levy income tax in 2013”. Which is totally true, but also doesn’t tell you the full story.

      Similarly, opposition day motions are usually very strongly whipped votes that include heavy criticism of the government. So Labour can put up motions saying (I paraphrase) “Welfare cuts are bad! Also the Lib Dems are evil.” The Liberals will then vote against this measure, and Labour can later point to it and say “Look! They voted against the idea that welfare cuts were bad!”

      These things can all very much skew things like theyworkforyou; it’s a good website and very useful, but it’s worth using other sources as well, and some MPs will end up coming out on the aggregate with positions they don’t actually hold (Huppert, for example, is a staunch supporter of PR, but comes out as “moderately against” for failing to support a Green amendment to the AV referendum bill that would have added PR as an option. Had the amendment passed, the Tories would have withdrawn their support and the referendum would never have happened, so it made sense for Lib Dems who wanted the AV referendum to happen to vote it down.)

  • […] presented on Labour activist-run website “Huppert Check“. In the post, available here, author James Baillie refutes the  Huppert Check presentation of Julian Huppert’s voting […]

  • Julian Todd says:

    As co-creator of publicwhip back in 2003 I’d almost given up anyone correctly understanding how to interpret voting records from Parliament. So little notice is taken, and MPs misrepresent what they do there all the time. “How can all this sh*t be happening without a single Member taking responsibility?” I’d ask.

    It seems like it’s a necessary part of the political process for the data to be get used and grossly distorted, before folks like you are able to correct these misinterpretations. So I actually welcome HuppertCheck for making this possible. May there be much more crap like it to work with.

    In the meantime you might enjoy some of projects at https://democracyclub.org.uk/

    Pass the word on about ElectionLeaflets and Candidate CVs to anyone you know in different constituencies.

  • Myers Johnson says:

    I think you’re exaggerating this a bit James. The graph label reads ‘votes with the Lib Dem – Tory coalition’ rather than ‘votes with the Tories’. If it was the latter you would have grounds to call the graph false and misleading; at its worst the graph is merely slightly confused. It is at least partially accurate to describe Huppert’s votes with his fellow Lib Dem MPs as votes with the coalition – they are all government MPs, sitting on government benches with some of them taking government positions. It makes the very true and correct point that Huppert is not the ‘independent voice for Cambridge’ that he claims to be. He is a Lib Dem who supports Tory governments.

    “Most bills are only passed on their third reading; voting for the first or second reading of a bill only puts it in for further scrutiny.”

    I’m afraid this just isn’t true. Voting for a second reading (the first reading is a formality) allows the bill to pass to third reading at which stage it can become an act of parliament. If it doesn’t pass the second reading it can never become law, so voting in favour at second reading is a crucial part of allowing a bill to pass. This is axiomatic, surely? A number of bills are defeated at second reading and never pass to committee stage. The Health and Social Care Act was a controversial bill, and Huppert helped it become law. There can be no argument over that fact.

    I hardly think it’s worth including a reference to Huppert’s supposed “efforts to ameliorate the bedroom tax”. As you correclty state he voted in favour of it. Unless he has claimed he was either ignorant of the effects of the bill or not of sound mind when he voted the first time, how can he expect us to believe his intention was pure when he voted to “ameliorate” the bedroom tax just months before an election?

    • jubalbarca says:

      As a backbencher, coming out against a bill early in the process, however, removes one’s chance of being able to suggest or carry amendments to it. Given the state of play in this government, whereby the liberal back bench were too few in numbers to threaten the government’s majority or actually stop bills passing, I think attempting to improve and amend bills as much as possible was the sensible thing to do.

      It’s also my own view, admittedly not one widely held, that we should give people credit for admitting that they got the implementation of a policy wrong and that it needed fixing. You can’t always correctly divine how a policy will work out before it’s implemented, and my personal feeling is that I’d much rather people admitted their policies had gone wrong and needed changing than stood by them in the face of mounting evidence and, in this case, mounting suffering. Labour, by contrast, still haven’t admitted that their own bedroom tax policy (they introduced the same pay-by-bedrooms principle to housing benefit payments in the private sector in 2007/8) was wrong, and are still happily keeping that under the carpet…

  • huppertcheck says:

    Hi James,

    I have amended the website in response to your critique.

    http://huppertcheck.info/an-independent-voice

    The headline conclusions don’t change much. MPs mostly vote with their party – this shouldn’t come as any surprise.

    I’d be grateful if you could remove the assertion from your article that I ‘knowingly lied’. I had nothing to do with putting together Cambridge Labour’s leaflets. I understand their 782 figure is simply out of date.

    Cheers,
    Tom

    • jubalbarca says:

      Thanks Tom – I hadn’t intended to give the impression that you had knowingly lied, rather that it is my belief (which I stand by) that other Labour activists in Cambridge knew that they were promoting two different figures – yours and that on the leaflets – at least one of which must have been untrue. I’ve written a clarification accordingly.

      • huppertcheck says:

        Thanks James,

        appreciate the clarification.

        I think part of the discrepancy may be that there was more voting after Cambridge Labour started using their 782 figure. If you don’t like Coalition policies, their numbers are kinder on Julian!

        Anyway, happy voting,
        Tom

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