Did Labour’s amendment scupper the Government’s Syria vote?

Before the crucial vote on military action in Syria on Thursday night, an amendment to the bill was tabled by Labour. It was defeated heavily, but it may have swung the subsequent vote against the government.

The amendment advised caution, and argued that it was necessary to wait for more evidence to come out about the chemical weapon attack before military action could be considered. As such it was the more anti-intervention motion of the two. 332 MPs voted against it, 112 more than supported it. Some voting against the motion who were staunchly against intervention, such as Labour shadow cabinet minister Jim Fitzpatrick, who voted against both motions and resigned in protest.

But the voting was mainly along party lines. The motion’s defeat could be seen as a blow for the doves and a boost for the hawks. If Labour’s amendment had failed, the coalition’s motion should easily be passed, which was the consensus beforehand.

Immediately following the amendment’s shock defeat, the vote was held for the government’s motion. Given the timing it would be a surprise if one had no effect on the outcome of the other. And, though counterintuitive, Labour’s defeat may have condemned to the coalition too.

Many coalition MPs were uneasy about military intervention, and the signal from the previous vote may have made them think that they could rebel without jeopardising the result – they assumed they would be on the losing side. Any undecided MPs may have inferred that Labour’s amendment stood as an alternative to the government’s plan.

The idea of ‘anchoring’ describes how being exposed to even completely arbitrary numbers skews guesses of amounts, towards the arbitrary number. Estate agents use it with asking prices, which even if they are unrealistic drag the eventual selling price up. In this case, the number wasn’t arbitrary but an extremely relevant indication of the opinion of parliament on the issue at hand. MPs could be forgiven for thinking that the result of the first vote would predict the second.

Even if the result of the first vote was largely predictable, its salience would have been high going into the second vote. Any estimation of the likely outcome of the second vote may have been anchored by the first.

Another popular science idea which is relevant is the wisdom of crowds – the idea that collectively, a large group of people come to the right amount  when their guesses are averaged out. This has been found to occur only when the individuals are acting independently, and are using all available information. The consensus that the government motion would be passed failed to take into account the narrowness of the immediate influences on MPs – they were all attuned to the result of the previous vote.

The first vote also framed the second one differently. Having voted against the amendment, voting for the government motion meant twice supporting military action. This takes more conviction than simply having to make one choice. Voting against both would be seen as the more moderate choice. It’s like a car salesman offering more expensive added extras, just to make the cheaper ones seem more reasonable.

Only a fraction of MPs need to have been swayed to change the result. It was defeated by 13 votes – a margin of 2.3%. If 7 MPs, or 1.25% of MPs had voted yes instead of no, the motion would have been passed. The 30 Tory and 9 Lib Dem rebels more than account for the outcome. On top of this, the 32 Tory and 15 Lib Dem abstentions could easily have changed the result. The shock that met the result, especially inside the Conservative party, shows that the party leaders thought they had their party behind them in the run-up to the vote. It may have been a spur of the moment decision for many of the rebels.

Given the slim margin, was the PM right to claim that ‘it is clear parliament doesn’t want action’? Compare this with the coalition’s confidence that it was the Assad regime that carried out the attack. Earlier on in the day BBC News reported that the UN report said it was 80% confident that it was the Assad regime. Scientific findings require 95%, or preferably 99% certainty in a result before it can be published.

Surprise results are by definition rare and unpredictable, but by tabling amendments that change the ‘choice architecture’ of an issue, could political parties influence the outcome of key votes in their favour?

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