MP voting records and rundown biases

When considering where to cast your vote this election, MP voter breakdowns can be a helpful tool. They Work for You offers a fairly comprehensive breakdown of how your MP has voted and links directly to Hansard reports on which your MP has delivered a speech or voted. They give you a general breakdown of how your MP has voted in the commons and a much more detailed rundown (if you want it) of specifically how they have voted on each bill, reading and amendment.

Understandably, many Christians want to consider whether to vote for their incumbent MP based on their voting record concerning the issues that matter to them. For this reason, many will search out Christian-focused vote histories. Many presume these Christian organisations will offer a fair summary of the issues that matter to them most. On this, let me offer a word of caution.

The Christian Institute offer one such voter rundown. They run a very simple system: a green tick means “morally right”; a red cross means “morally wrong”; a black dot means an abstention or absence from the chamber. Inevitably, this is going to involve a certain level of interpretation. It is also likely to end up being a little misleading.

Nowhere do the Christian Institute link back to Hansard nor breakdown the specific voting record of the MP in question. They don’t even offer the eminently more helpful caveat of They Work for You, which qualifies each issue with information on whether the MP voted strongly or moderately for or against the issue (that is, they may have voted for certain elements but not others). The Christian Institute rundown simply says the MP either voted for or against a measure and this is deemed either morally right or wrong.

It is also worth considering how far back some of these histories go. You may find a voting record stretching back to first appearance in the Commons incredibly helpful. However, it is always worth bearing in mind that individuals can change their mind over time and issues certainly change their substance over time. Someone voting one way in the 90s does not mean they will vote the same way now. Equally, having voted one way decades ago on an issue simply means they were voting on the issue before them on the day. Though current bills may relate to similar issues, the specific provisions will inevitably be different. For example, many MPs voted in favour of Civil Partnerships (specifically because they were not gay marriage). That is not evidence they were going to vote in favour of gay marriage.  The Christian Institute took a hard line that said Civil Partnerships were “gay marriage in all but name”. As such, on their breakdown they deem a vote in favour as morally wrong. Were an election to follow immediately after a vote on this issue, to read the Christian Institute rundown would be to presume this MP will vote for gay marriage when that is not evident at all.

Other of their interpretive views are interesting. For example, they deem a vote against “mainly Christian” Religious Education (back in 1988 no less), to be morally wrong. Yet, this isn’t really a moral issue. This measure wasn’t preventing the teaching of Christianity, it was removing a presumption that learning about other religions in any detail would be prohibited. Moreover, this moral stance presumes RE existed for the purposes of Christian Instruction. Certainly that was once the case but most Bible-believing Christians would surely balk at the idea of non-Christian RE teachers attempting to instruct children in a “mainly Christian” manner. Further, it is hard to see what it morally wrong about expecting RE to be about comparative study and learning about the different religions in the UK. It is possible you may prefer “mainly Christian” RE (though, equally, you may not as outlined here in respect to assemblies) but to view it as morally wrong to demur seems well beyond the bounds of scriptural morality.

Other examples include a specific point about voting to remove the ban on homosexuals joining the army. This was deemed morally wrong. Whatever our views on homosexuality (and they usually are morally based), it seems hard to maintain a moral argument for homosexuals being prohibited from serving in the armed forces. Even if there are reasons we may give for that ban (though I’m not sure I can think of any), they surely cannot be moral ones. There are a handful of further examples here too.

At the end of the day, we have to be pretty simplistic in our thinking to believe all true Christians agree on all matters of politics. That Christians exist in almost every political party in the UK, of all stripes and colours, speaks to this. Even where we agree on matters of morality, we may not agree on how those moral views ought to be played out in the public square and the prohibitions put on them. Effectively, we may agree on what constitutes sin and how that will be judged by the Lord whereas we may disagree on whether individuals ought to be free to commit those sins and in what measure. For an explanation of how I work that out, how I understand the relationship between civil law, sin and morality see here.

All that is not to say we should ignore these voter rundowns. It is not to say they are of no value at all. It is only to say that we should read them with our eyes open. We should be aware of the biases of the groups writing them. It is probably best to compare a few of them. Cross-reference between The Christian Institute and They Work for You or other similar voting histories. The bottom line is we should not simply presume, at face value, a green tick or a red cross does true morality show.