Speaking in the chamber is a challenge for any MP. However keen you are to give a speech on an issue, there is no guarantee that you will be called by the Speaker. Traditionally, smaller parties have faced challenges when trying to get airtime in the House of Commons. But is there evidence that is changing?
Little time to speak
Earlier this year, Members of Parliament filled the House of Commons for a six hour debate on the no-confidence motion in the government that the Labour party had tabled. Once speeches had been made by the leader of the opposition, the prime minister and the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, there were just four hours remaining for backbench MPs to make their contributions. If we take out the winding up speeches made by Michael Gove and Tom Watson, this falls to just three and a half hours.
A total of 57 backbench speeches were made; impressive given the short length of the debate, but less impressive given that there are 650 MPs in total, many more of whom will have wished to be heard. As she finished her four minute speech, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts described how “as a member of a small party who usually has very little time to speak” and that she was aware “how valuable the time we have is”.
A large number of the two largest parties will usually be called to speak in debates. This is because the Speaker must seek to balance contributions made by MPs in proportion to the party balance of the House. In most debates therefore, when the government minister, the shadow minister and the SNP frontbench spokesperson have made a speech, there will be much to-ing and fro-ing between Conservative and Labour backbenchers.
Some MPs from smaller parties accept this as the usual state of play, but others are more frustrated by their lack of debating time. The SNP, for instance, got into an argument with Lindsay Hoyle during the committee stage of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill back in 2017 following what they felt were constraints on their speaking time.
The no-confidence debate in detail
In total, 29 Conservative backbenchers and 19 Labour backbenchers were called to speak in the no-confidence debate. With only 61 of the 650 MPs, it seems only right that the majority of speeches come from the Conservative and Labour benches. After all, they represent 88 per cent of seats in the chamber (even more if you exclude the Sinn Fein MPs who do not take their seats and the Speake and Deputy Speakers). The other five political parties with seats in the Commons made just 8 backbench speeches between them. That’s eight speeches from a pool of 61 MPs.
It might not sound like a lot, but in this debate (regardless of whether we look at the number of speakers or the time these speakers were able to hold the floor for) the smaller parties were actually getting their fair share of contributions.
In fact, they could have received even more than their fair share. Figures 1 and 2 show that the larger parties were the more disadvantaged. This is perhaps because the importance of the topic at hand and the heightened political atmosphere made it more imperative than normal for the Speaker to call representatives from all parties.
We can see this, as Vince Cable was called to speak for the Liberal Democrats very early on, shortly followed by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. As a representative of the smallest party, Caroline Lucas was (as the only Green MP) the final opposition party to be called to speak.
This is not really the norm. In other debates, such as second readings of government bills, or debates on government statements to the House, the small parties are unlikely to all be called in this way.
Are smaller parties being given a bigger platform?
Over the last few months we’ve seen examples of the smaller opposition parties being given a bigger say in parliament than they ever have before. The defeat of the prime minister’s Brexit deal in parliament during the so called ‘meaningful vote’ just a few weeks ago led to cross-party talks in which the leaders of all the opposition parties, including Caroline Lucas, met with the prime minister to discuss progress.
Together these smaller parties have put forward amendments to the government’s motion which will be debate in parliament next week. In her statement to the house following the meaningful vote defeat, the prime minister said that, in accordance with the guidelines expressed in Erskine May, the government would give time for a debate and vote should Jeremy Corbyn seek to table a motion of no-confidence in the government.
Significantly though, she also added that if he did not do so, she would ‘on this occasion’ make time for a debate on a motion tabled by the other opposition parties. The small parties had tabled a joint motion in December following Labour’s incorrectly worded motion, but no time had been found to debate it.
The combination of the heightened political atmosphere, the ticking Brexit clock and the government’s vulnerability in the Commons has enhanced the importance of the smaller opposition parties. Over the coming weeks and months they will likely have both a stronger presence and a greater voice in the Commons chamber.