Organisation is the key in democracy

Local MP, John Grogan, discusses recent legislation

Democratic politics is essentially a numbers game. Whether it be York University Athletic Union, Heslington Parish Council or the House of Commons, ultimately you need to construct a majority to win. The best arguments in the world can fail to prevail if the organisation behind them is poor. During the first two months of 2006 I have been involved in lobbying behind the scenes on two key votes in Parliament – the amendment of the Religious Hatred Bill and the comprehensive smoking ban.

One common lesson of both debates was coalition building. To my dying day I will recall, in the run-up to the final vote on the Religious Hatred Bill, my office full of an eclectic mix including lawyers from the Christian Evangelical Alliance, officers of the National Secular Society, actors and comedians. They were all from very different backgrounds and perspectives but united in the cause of free speech. Equally in the smoking debate I did my best to bring together my two roles as chair of the Backbench Labour Party Health Committee and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group.

The Health Select Committee chairman and I spent hours over Christmas and New Year locked in meetings with the captains of the pub industry and representatives of Cancer Research UK, The British Medical Association and Action on Smoking and Health. The progress of these talks was I think one of the factors in persuading Downing Street to grant MPs a free vote. In turn, once that decision had been taken pubs very quickly signed up to a complete smoking ban, fearful that if members clubs were exempted they could lose much business from smoking customers.

Voting in the House of Commons is a very physical business. The division bell rings and MPs have eight minutes to get to one of the two division lobbies. The golden rule is to let MPs sympathetic to your cause know whether they need to vote aye or no. When there is a series of votes on complicated amendments that is not easy. On the occasion of the Religious Hatred Bill there were two votes and the rebel majority fell from eleven to one with the Prime Minister famously not voting on the second occasion. He was not the only one to get caught out. The reason the rebel majority fell was that their crib sheet on how to vote mistakenly predicted only one division and so after the first vote several rebels trooped off to the bar thinking the job was done. But for the Prime Minister’s absence weeks of careful organisation and planning would have been undone! When it comes to democratic decision making sometimes there is no substitute for a stroke of luck.

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