Thursday 8 April 2010

Why abortion will be a campaign issue in 2010

David Cameron has pledged to personally vote for a lower abortion time limit in the next Parliament. It is very likely that the abortion limit would be cut, perhaps to 20 weeks, if there was a small Conservative majority in the next House of Commons.

The Daily Telegraph reports:

The Conservative leader said that he would personally favour reducing the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20 or 22 weeks ... The Conservative leader has laid out his plans in an interview with The Catholic Herald, one of his first interviews of the election campaign. It is understood that Mr Cameron’s aides requested the interview.

The decision to seek out the opportunity to make this an early campaign theme will stir debate.

Cameron is committed to offering government time for a vote on reducing the limit - and the Conservative campaign seem to have determined that the potential gain among voters who share Cameron's position is greater than a likely backlash from women's groups, or others keen to see the issue remain 'above politics'.

There is strong tradition of free votes on issues of conscience (which Cameron pledges to protect) along with some reluctance to see conscience issues become a prominent part of party election campaigning. In 2005, a Telegraph poll found 60% of voters wanted abortion kept out of party political election campaigning, by a 2-1 margin.

Yet it is rather difficult to keep issues of conscience out of electoral politics - or even party politics.

The fact is that issues of conscience do split MPs primarily along ideological (and hence party lines) even when there is a free vote, as academic Phillip Cowley, Britain's leading analyst of Parliamentary votes, has set out based on his authoritative analysis of previous abortion votes:

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.

There is clear evidence that a small Conservative majority in the House of Commons would see the Commons contain enough supporters of reducing the abortion time limit on a free vote, as Next Left has previously reported (see the post for more detailed links) on the basis both Cowley's analysis of the 2007 vote in the Commons, and the FT's analysis of new candidates' views.

So hopes that abortion could remain outside the election campaign were always going to be frustrated. Expect the 2010 campaign to see more mobilisation on the issue than there has been in any recent General Election.

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