Should Hoey and Field be de-selected?

tl;dr it's a trade-off between independence and party cohesion

Constituency Labour parties in Vauxhall and Birkenhead have expressed no-confidence in Kate Hoey and Frank Field respectively.

The proximate cause was a vote on an amendment to the government’s Trade Bill (New Clause 18), where Hoey and Field, together with two other Labour MPs, voted with the government against an effort to keep the UK inside the Customs Union under certain circumstances. Had these four Labour MPs followed the Labour whip, the government would have been defeated.

With some exceptions, people who support Brexit also support Hoey and Field in their campaigns against de-selection, and vice versa.

Independently of Brexit, there are principled reasons why one might either support or oppose moves to de-select these two MPs.

The case against de-selection is this:

  • Field and Hoey are dissenting from their party’s position on an important issue.This shows independent judgement.
  • Independent judgment is a quality we should reward in our MPs.
  • If de-selection on policy grounds is easy, independent judgement would become less likely.
  • Therefore de-selection should be difficult.

There is lots of support for the view that we should reward independent judgement amongst MPs. Survey experimental and observational evidence shows that voters are more likely to vote for candidates who disagree with their party. Broadly speaking, people like rebels.

The case for de-selection is this:

  • political parties structure political disagreements, forming consistent policy packages.
  • If parties are not allowed to enforce their preferred positions, then policy is made on the fly by parliamentary freelancers, and this is undesirable.
  • The threat of de-selection is one way for parties to enforce their preferred policy positions.
  • Therefore de-selection should be easy.

This position is less commonly expressed, perhaps because we in the UK are used to programmatic parties. But Brexit itself shows what happens when issues emerge which are not structured by party competition: a notional legislative majority based on party labels turns out not to have a consistent policy majority. Important votes depend upon promises made to individual legislators on different wings.

Both of these arguments are appealing in part. There is therefore no single answer to the question of whether Hoey and Field should be de-selected. Someone who prizes independent-mindedness will recommend things that damage parties' cohesion. Someone who prizes party cohesion will damage independent mindedness. There is therefore a trade-off.

Having said that…

Where we're faced with a trade-off, it's tempting to look for rules of thumb that can enable us to pick a point on the trade-off curve.

One rule of thumb might be that policy disagreements shouldn't be grounds for de-selection where the policy disagreement in question is an exception to a general pattern of loyalty.

Alternately, we might say that policy disagreements shouldn't be grounds for de-selection where these policy disagreements "cancel each other out", because they are sometimes involve a more left-wing, and sometimes a more right-wing position.

Neither of these defences applies in the case of Field or Hoey. Both MPs have been consistently rebelliousness. The chart below shows rates of rebellion of Labour MPs since the 1997 Parliament (you can find the R code here).

Thus, the rebellion on NC17 was not an isolated incident. Hoey and Field have been consistently rebellious.

What about their ideology — are Hoey and Field simply mavericks, who sometimes adopt more left-wing positions, and sometimes more right-wing positions?

It is difficult to say, because we have no generally accepted ways of measuring MPs' left-right orientations. In a 2017 paper with Ben Lauderdale and Nick Vivyan (see also the blog post), I used patterns of signatures to early day motions to estimate MPs' left-right positions, allowing for the tendency of some MPs to sign anything put in front of them. I've plotted the distribution of positions below. The scale in the plot is arbitrary, and where MPs signed few EDMs they will be pulled back to the average for their party, perhaps exaggerating the separation by party (Data here).

The plot shows that Hoey and Field are both very much to the right of their party. Their positions are far from the positions of the most left-wing Conservative MPs, but as I have already suggested this method of analysis may exaggerate the distances between parties.

It is therefore difficult to defend Field or Hoey by arguing that their recent vote on NC17 was an isolated incident. If you want to defend them, you should argue that their independence from party is a good thing, and worth inconveniencing the party for.