Saturday 13 February 2010

Tory Commons majority 'would cut abortion time limit'

A Conservative majority in the House of Commons would see the next Parliament reduce the abortion time limit, most probably from 24 to 20 weeks, senior Tory MPs, shadow cabinet members and party officials have told the Financial Times.

The newspaper's own analysis of MPs and candidates' views on abortion suggests that there would be enough votes to reduce the time limit even with a Tory majority of less than 10 seats:

One shadow cabinet member said: “We will, I am sure, have the votes we need to do it. It’s something lots of us feel very strongly about – including David [Cameron].”

This view is confirmed by surveys of Tory parliamentary candidates by, combined with research by the FT.

The news report draws on an interesting in-depth FT weekend magazine feature by leader writer Chris Cook on the influence of Christian thinking on the modern Conservative party. It is a multimedia production, with magazine cover star Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome also giving a video interview.

ConservativeHome has campaigned for more restrictive abortion laws, a position supported by most leading Tory frontbenchers (excepting George Osborne). Some Conservatives, including Liam Fox and Nadine Dorries, have argued for a limit as low as 12 weeks. The Conervatives have previously suggested David Cameron would find government time to ensure a lower abortion time limit could be legislated for on a free vote.

Though there have been long been significant strands of faith engagement within party politics on both left and right, much value has traditionally been placed on Britain's "free vote" approach in insulating issues of conscience from partisan concerns. A Telegraph poll ahead of the 2005 election found that 60% of the public wanted to keep abortion out of party politics, a 2-1 margin.

British concerns about explicit US-style religious mobilisation in partisan politics is reflected in several Christian Conservatives telling the FT that they think it strategically important to keep the religious motivation for their activism under wraps:

While the votes may come from secular Tories, the ringleaders of any abortion-tightening attempt will be Christians. In 2008, when parliament was debating embryology, Nadine Dorries, a high-profile backbench Tory MP, led the charge against abortion – and says she is informed by her Christianity (though “if you mention God in an argument in the UK, you lose,” she says). One leading anti-abortion activist noted that behind the scenes the Christian Medical Fellowship and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship were “absolutely indispensable. They did most of the heavy lifting on research. But we could never acknowledge their role. Never. People would never take us seriously again.” (Dorries says another reason she avoids talking about faith in parliament is out of fear it will set a precedent by which Muslim MPs could express – and impose – theirs. “There is no place for sharia law in Britain and as politicians we have to be aware and vigilant to ensure that we don’t ease or facilitate its acceptance,” she says.)

Dorries' argument seems rather muddled here, in that this would appear to conflate the ideas of articulating a faith perspective (whether Christian or Muslim) with the wish for the state impose it through law on others: that could risk giving the unfortunate impression of seeking to impose her own faith views by stealth.


The idea of an emerging though home-grown British 'religious right' may possibly overstate the role of religion and underestimate that of political ideology and values when it comes to determining conscience issues such as abortion.

For it is not faith but party affiliation which remains the most significant predictor of how MPs will vote on free vote issues. Women MPs are somewhat less likely, and Catholic MPs somewhat more likely, to favour restrictions on abortion than other MPs from their own party. But the overwhelmingly stronger effect is that Labour and LibDem MPs are more liberal on abortion rights, and Conservatives more conservative.

As Phillip Cowley has written:

Issues of conscience are often described as cutting across party lines; but when it comes to the voting the cut goes down party lines more than across them.

Look at the 1990 votes which gave us the current abortion law. Two-thirds of Labour MPs voted to keep the time limit at 28 weeks – compared to just five per cent Conservative MPs. When it came to the vote on 22 weeks – the more restrictive option that failed most narrowly – it was supported by 64 per cent of Conservatives, but just 15 per cent of Labour MPs. Even without the dictates of the whip, it was an MP’s party label which was the most significant predictor of how they voted. Other influences – such as younger MPs tending to be more liberal or Catholic MPs being more likely to vote in favour of restrictions on abortion whilst women are less likely – are both sporadic and partial. And as a result, it is, for the most part, the party composition of the Commons that determines the outcome of any vote on these issues.

Cowley reports that in 2007, the Conservatives split 82/17 in favour (women 7/1 for) while Labour split 13/134 against (women 3/46) Ann Winterton's proposals for a cooling off period on abortion. There was a similar overall pattern in 2008 on the Dorries campaign to reduce time limits, which leads Cowley to also predict a restriction in abortion rights if there were a Tory majority.

That MPs from the same party tend to vote similarly when no whip applies also shows us that ideology matters in politics; that ought to lead to the rethinking of some of the more simplistic tirades against party and the whip.

Voters for whom abortion is a priority issue - whether they oppose or support changes in the current law - will no doubt want to find out where individual candidates stand. In perhaps four out of five cases, the party affiliations of the candidate will offer a significant clue.


_______ said...

This is why the centre-left should not engage in religious moralist arguments in order to get the religious vote. Centre-left arguments should always be rooted in secularism, there's no place for quoting God/Jesus/Allah etc in the argument for social justice, ecological sustainability and so on. As soon as you do, you create space for right wing social conservatism and a general bigoted style of reasoning that can often be used to pursue economic libertarianism or banal anti-statism, just think of all the American republicans who compare Obama's healthcare reform to evil aethistic communism.

_______ said...

... and American Republicans are overwhelmingly Christian.