How Britain’s parliament casts a vote

Let’s talk about how the British Parliament, in all its majesty, passes a bill into law.

We’ll skip all the sensible stuff that comes first–or that should, although you have to wonder sometimes. That’s stuff like researching the need for the law,  the impact it would have (expected and unexpected), and the result of using this set of words as opposed to some other set. That sort of thing.

Or failing all that, how it’ll play on the 6 o’clock news and what it’ll do for your career.

We’ll also skip over the politicking. Let’s get straight to the vote.

Irrelevant photo: A tree. Pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

When a bill comes to a vote, the first attempt to pass it is a voice vote. That doesn’t mean each person being called on and responding individually. It’s a sort of mass bellow. The Commons (I don’t know about the Lords–they don’t appear as often on the news) bellows like a herd of mistreated cows. A British politician needs a good set of lungs.

In the Commons, they vote either aye or no. Why don’t they use a matching pair of words, either aye and nay or yes and no? Because that’s not how they do it. How things are done is very important around here.

If there’s any question about which side has a majority, the Speaker (if it’s the Commons) says, “Division. Clear the lobbies.”

There’s a history to that clearing. This is Britain. There’s a history to everything.

In 1771, Thomas Hunt, who wasn’t a Member of Parliament, strategically placed himself among the MPs voting no on I have no idea what, and his vote was counted, the clever devil.

What’s more, he turned out to have done this before. Or so says Wikiwhatsia, although I couldn’t confirm it or find the missing pieces of the story. Treat it as urban legend if you like.

So they sweep anyone who doesn’t belong in the lobbies out of the lobbies, no doubt turning up all sorts of riffraff in the process, from mice (the place is infested) to bloggers. Then the MPs file into their separate lobbies: right (from where the speaker sits) for aye and left for no.

Now let’s check in with the House of Lords, where they do things differently because they’re Lords and it’s important to distinguish themselves from the House of Riffraff.

The Lords don’t vote aye and no, they are content and not content–or as Parliament’s website puts it, Content and Not Content, with glorious capital letters. These at least have the virtue of at being a matching set, even if it sounds like their users are making overarching statements about their emotional wellbeing.

If the voice vote isn’t clear, the Lords don’t clear the lobbies, they clear the bar.

What bar? Why, the bar of the House.

Do they serve alcohol right inside the Lords’ chamber?

Not inside, no. It’s a railing.

An important railing.

A railing that visitors aren’t allowed to cross when the Lords are in session.

And to prove that the Lords are classier than the Commons, the bar in the Commons is nothing but a plain old white line.

Don’t you MPs wish you had a railing?

According to Wikiwhatsia, the Lord Speaker announces a division by saying, “The Contents to the right by the Throne, the Not-Contents to the left by the Bar.” At that point the Contents and the Malcontents file into separate lobbies, just like the riffraff in the House of Commons.

Wait a minute, though. What throne?

Why, the throne in the House of Lords, of course. The House of Lords keeps a throne on hand for the queen or king’s yearly visit at the opening of Parliament. The rest of the year, it’s used by the mice.

Okay, I’m guessing about the mice using it, but I do know that in 2017 Parliament spent £130,000 to get rid of mice and moths and assorted other creatures who weren’t (as humans calculate these things) supposed to be there, and I’d be surprised if it got them all. There’d been building work. It had sent the mice scurrying and the number of sightings had gone up from the previous year–411 as opposed to 313.

Yes, someone counts mouse sightings. The unreported ones are counted telpathically.

A few MPs took matters into their own hands and declared an informal Take Your Cat to Work Day (or week, or year), although no one thought to call it that. And they got their hands slapped for it–the ”it” being bringing the cats, not missing the chance for a joke.

As the Serjeant at Arms explained, “This rule is in place because of the duty of care that would arise in relation to animal welfare and the health, safety and wellbeing of members, staff and visitors on the parliamentary estate.”  Translation? Cats are only there because humans bring them, so we’re responsible for any trouble they cause to humans or mice, or that humans or mice cause to them. We can’t be blamed for what the mice do, however, because we’re trying to get rid of them, and we’re doing everything short of bringing in cats.

But we were talking about the throne.

Parliament’s website says, “The Sovereign’s Throne is one of the most important items of furniture in the Palace of Westminster. The elaborately carved woodwork is gilded, inset with rock crystals and upholstered in sumptuous red velvet and intricate embroidery.” And, I’d add, garlanded with sumptuous prose. If you want to see it, follow the link. I’d call it a little over the top, myself, and if someone inflicted it on me I’d hide it in the garage. It’s just not a good match for my living room furniture but you, of course, might feel differently. 

In 1901, “a second throne, known as the consort’s throne, was created. Almost identical to the sovereign’s throne, but an inch shorter, the consort’s throne is brought back to the Palace of Westminster once a year for State Opening of Parliament from its permanent home in Houghton Hall, Norfolk.”

It is not as heavily garlanded in sumptuous prose as the monarch’s throne.

And that inch it’s missing? It’s a highly symbolic one in case the consort’s tempted to forget who’s who.  

Now we need to backtrack a bit, because not everyone who votes on a bill has been sitting in the chamber, listening to the debates. Debates are dull. Some are full of rhetoric. Some are even full of facts, and what’s duller than facts? Many a deadly speech has been delivered to a nearly empty chamber. So has many a rousing one. The folks who don’t need to be there aren’t there, and from the look of the chamber not many people do need to be.

Why debate issues when almost no one’s listening? Because that’s how it’s done. Because it gives everyone the nice warm feeling that they’re doing their job and that the country’s being run well. Or if they’re in the opposition, that it’s not being run well and they’re protesting like hell.    

Also because they get printed in Hansard.

So both the Commons and the Lords ring a bell to summon all the straying politicians from their offices. And those bells ring not only in Westminster but in the surrounding pubs and restaurants where politicians are regulars. That’s a total of 380 bells, one for every day of the week with 15 left over to go play in traffic.

Once the bell has rung, the MPs or Lords have exactly eight minutes to lock their office doors or slam down their drinks and fill their pockets with the mashed potatoes they were saving for last and rush to the right (or left) lobby before the doors are locked. Because they will be locked.

And if they’re late? Tough. No excuses are accepted.

Electronic voting has been proposed at times, but no single proposal’s managed to gather enough support to change the system. I’m taking that from Parliament’s own website, which doesn’t bother to explain why or how more than one way of setting up electronic voting has been proposed at any given time. It does say that “many Members view the procedure of voting in person through the lobbies as an essential opportunity to speak to or lobby senior colleagues.”

In other words, they get to corner all the people who’ve been ducking them in corridors and not returning their emails and phone calls. Such is the life of a politician.

So, like many other arcane traditions, the division of the house continues.

MPs can abstain by staying in their seats during a division, but it’s frowned on. They can, more respectably, pass through both lobbies.

If an MP is too ill to go through either lobby but their party’s desperate for their vote, they can be brought to Westminster–at least once an MP was brought in an ambulance after a heart attack–and be “nodded through” if the tellers agree to it. The only two conditions are that the MP has to be within the precincts of Westminster and alive.


My thanks to Bear Humphreys for suggesting this topic. Sort of. His interest was snagged by the bells and the eight-minute dash back from the pub and I got caught up in the preliminaries and the mashed potatoes. Still, I wouldn’t have found them without him.

79 thoughts on “How Britain’s parliament casts a vote

  1. Thanks Ellen, I knew you’d do a better job of research than me, I’d still be touring the pubs to report on whether they all did still have a division bell alarm or not, although it may have taken a few weeks at even the (frankly unlikely) rate of only one pint per pub.

    Strangely, your post appears in the very week the process of voting has been under almost forensic examination by the media, both televised and in print. In fact, rarely has there been as much interest in the House of Commons as there was this week and we were treated to the whole bewildering process (including Governments voting against deals they’d negotiated and a Brexit Minister voting against a motion they’d just spent twenty minutes pleading for the house to vote for) taking place.

    As has talk of whips. I looked in to the whip thing… I’ll warn you that you have to be careful on researching whips.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, yes. You will be getting some very weird spam now.

      I caught a clip of the nearly empty House of Commons going through the motions of debate just before what was, predictably, a massive turnout for one of the votes. Where was everyone? Filling their pockets with mashed potatoes, of course.

      Thanks again for the suggestion. One of the advantages of not drinking is that your research is quicker. And cheaper.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderfully done, as always. There’s one wee mater you overlooked, though, perhaps because in all the recent shenanigans it’s been noticeable by its absence: pairing. That’s where someone is indisposed or has a really good reason for not being within 8 minutes of the lobbies and the whips agree that someone from the other side of the debate will also be excluded to balance the votes. Of course, these past weeks no-one, least of all any of the whips, is quite sure who is on which side of the argument so that might have been a bit difficult to arrange. There have been occasions when such an arrangement was agreed ahead of the vote but someone broke his/her promise and went into the lobby anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “Why debate issues when almost no one’s listening? Because that’s how it’s done. Because it gives everyone the nice warm feeling that they’re doing their job and that the country’s being run well. Or if they’re in the opposition, that it’s not being run well and they’re protesting like hell.”

    Huh. Over here I often think the only reason they debate is to get their faces on television so people can see they’re actually (ahem) working and not in a pub or chasing down their newest intern.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting information about things over the pond. Congress in the US often has members making speeches to empty or almost empty rooms. The speeches go into the record and are reported died for word in the congressional report that goes out every day and is mailed to people all over the country who are interested in following things like that.

    I like the idea of calling the strip across the floor a bar. Makes sense up me .

    I have wondered if MPs have assigned seats. Do back benches sit in the back on purpose so they can be quiet and nap if they want to and generally stay out of the commotion.

    Keep up the investigation. Many unanswered questions remain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They not only don’t have assigned seats, they don’t have enough seats. If someone seriously wants a seat, they come in early and leave what’s called a prayer card on the seat they want. I should do a post because I’ve forgotten the details. They’re suitably byzantine. But each party does have its own area and the front benches are taken up by their–oh, I’m not sure what they’re called. For the party in power, the ministers. For the parties not in power, the shadow ministers.


  5. Got some reason your post did not show up on my screen this morning and I had to tract you down. Don’t see anything odd on this end and the following box is checked. We had a severe thunderstorm during the night, maybe it scared your post away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That would’ve been it. My writing is seriously scared of thunderstorms. It was traumatized at an early age.

      Me? I love a good storm.

      Anyway, sorry to skitter away on you like that. If it continues to happen, let me know, would you? I won’t have a clue what to do, but I’ve learned to throw myself at the WP problem solvers when odd stuff happens. They’ve been great–and they haven’t laughed at me (where I can hear them) once.


  6. I love that photograph. It reminds me of one of the things about Cornwall that has always stuck in my mind (in addition to the white sand, the strange rocks and the pasties). I live on the coast and our trees don’t do that, although they might change their minds after the battering they’ve had these last few days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Years ago, some friends from Cornwall came to visit us in Minnesota and fell in love with the tree in our back yard. It was a huge elm–two people couldn’t get their arms around it–and they kept saying, “That beautiful, straight tree.” It was a while before I really understood why a straight tree moved them so. It was–well, exotic, I guess. And I’ve learned to love straight trees, but the bent ones amaze me and I love them as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting traditions.

    The difference between an infestation of mice vs. bloggers is that, if you work hard enough, you can get rid of mice.

    Regarding the throne: Does the Queen kick back and put her feet up on the little ottoman, or does she just trip over it like we do in the colonies?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. They have had quite a bit of practice lately of how to cast a vote, haben’t they? :D And the way I see it, Theresa May is hell bent for leather to give them even more practice in the next few weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. After yesterday, I need something silly and something my English genes can guffaw over without offence. Or, at least, without caring about offence. I’m only part-English, after all. Clearly not the polite-gened part.
    Brilliant stuff. One wonders if one’s newspaper should carry a serialisation.I shall have one’s secretary look into it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • If one’s secretary could arrange that, this other one would be very grateful. I did, at one point, try to interest one (can I change the meaning of that word midway through the conversation?) and got a silent yawn by way of reply.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Cats are a good idea, in permanent residence.
    MPs should not be allowed to come in very sick, because if the put their hand in their pocket to get a hanky, they might get covered in mashed potato.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. OMG Ellen, I hope DT doesn’t ever find out about the throne – I’m sure he would order one for the White House.
    BTW, we don’t have mice running around in our government buildings. We have rats. I don’t think the cats would stand a chance with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you Ellen,
    very interesting. Here in Germany you always get these pictures of people sitting very close to each other on green benches, when everybody is attending. For an outsider they seem to say “No” no matter to what at the momen making this a theatre performance for me.
    I have heard the bellows and was wondering about the grade of aggression on your island!

    In the States they also have a bell system to gather the people for a vote in the Capitol although it does not extent to local pubs, a nice feature by the way!

    You gave me the picture of a member of Parliament voting with mashed potatoes in their pocket! I needed that!
    Greetings from Hamburg

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some people seem to consider the bellowing an integral part of democracy over here and others (including me) a form of bullying. How they ever get any actual work done I don’t know.

      Well, right now they’re tied in such tight knots over Brexit that they’re not getting any work done.


  13. And what interesting votes you have been having over recent weeks. Your system is not dissimilar to our Federal Parliament in Australia but of course we don’t have Lords, just the Lower House and the Upper House (which is the Senate which in itself seems weird). But we do have divisions and bell ringing. Not so sure about the mice in our relatively new Parliament House ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Given how interesting the last few weeks have been, I’m thinking we should start a campaign to let the mice vote. Surely they’ll show more sense than either our leaders or we ourselves have.


  14. Brilliant, perhaps you could offer this as required reading for new MPs because I imagine they have no idea what is going on. I feel like I live in the House of Commons recently, Cyberspouse is addicted to News 24 and BBC Parliament for his regular Brexit Fixes and there is not a lot of difference between the two stations at present. BUT it is rather fun in small doses.


  15. As one who lives in a house with mice, I find it hard to tell one from another. (Even when Snoops presents them to me in still-life.) I would think that the person responsible for counting the mice should give them little identifiers so they don’t get counted twice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point. In fact, now that you’ve said it, it’s screamingly obvious, only of course it wasn’t until you raised it. Maybe they’ve issued them team jackets, with numbers. Or done their nails in different color combinations.

      On a related subject, the late, lamented Smudge had a captive breeding program. He’d bring them in and let them go so he’d have year-round indoor hunting. Is that what Snoops is up to or do you just happen to live in the midst of a great hunting ground?

      Liked by 1 person

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