What you should know about voting information on TheyWorkForYou

TheyWorkForYou’s aim is to make it easier to understand what goes on in the UK’s parliaments. The way that an MP has voted is, of course, an important part of that.

Presenting such information in a simple way requires us to distill an often complex history of voting on a number of questions, sometimes over many years, into a short plain English statement for each subject, for example:

“[This MP] almost always voted for allowing marriage between two people of same sex.”

In order to do that, we manually review each vote in the House of Commons (at the time of writing, we’ve researched every one of over 2,000 votes since the start of the 2010 Parliament), determine what the impact of voting each way was each time, and collect votes together so we can present a statement made on the basis of a number of votes on the same subject.

How to find the vote you’re interested in

Parliamentary sessions often run into the evening — and occasionally, all night. Content generally appears on TheyWorkForYou by around 9:00 am the next day: earlier if there are no hitches with the data import; potentially later if there’s something to fix.

If the vote happened in the last few days the quickest way to find it is to visit the Recent Votes page.

If you know the date of the vote, you can locate it by defining the date in Advanced Search. This approach also allows you to add keywords or the name of someone who spoke in the debate.

If you have a quote from the debate that the vote was part of, you can search for that (in quotation marks if you know it’s the precise wording).

If you just know the rough subject of the vote, you could try searching on Public Whip, which itself offers links back to the votes on TheyWorkForYou.

If you know your MP voted (or you want to see how they voted) you can visit their page and check the ‘recent votes’ tab.

For older votes, you may also check the topics in your MP’s ‘voting record’ tab — votes are not added here immediately (because we have to process them manually, as we describe further below), and may take up to two weeks to appear. Note that some votes do not sit within one of the topics we cover, and so won’t be on these pages.

Bear in mind that even when there’s been a lot of coverage on a motion being passed, there may not have been a vote. An example of this is the 2019 resolution to adopt a zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050, approved without a vote as it was agreed unanimously. Many users contacted us to ask how their MP had voted on this resolution — and we couldn’t tell them the answer.

Sometimes policies which are in the public eye are described in a catchy and perhaps pejorative way by those who oppose them and by the media. These terms often enter general conversational use: examples include “bedroom tax”, “mansion tax” and “death tax”. This presents a challenge for us as we want to be careful to remain neutral. The approach we take is to generally avoid using these pejorative terms, but when describing how an MP has voted we may try to include whatever name has passed into general parlance, so that it’s easier to identify. Here’s an example:

“[This MP] voted for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the "bedroom tax")”

Share responsibly

We are very aware of the need for accuracy and avoiding bias in presenting MPs’ stances and the voting records they are based upon.

Since we introduced representatives’ voting records to TheyWorkForYou, it has become increasingly popular to share them via social media and in the mainstream press — especially at election times or when an MP is promoted to a ministerial position.

Ideally, when sharing voting records, you should link back to the source on TheyWorkForYou so that readers can see the context we provide, including the list of individual votes we took into account when determining how to describe an MP's stance on a matter, and the full text of the debates leading up to those votes.

And because we know that with this kind of sharing subtleties can sometimes be lost, we’ve put together this page to try and make things as clear as possible. So please also feel free to link to this page and let people know it’s here, especially if you’re sharing voting records and you want to ensure people understand how they were put together.

What voting information we publish

Recent votes

Our Recent Votes page always shows the 30 most recent votes that have taken place in the House of Commons, House of Lords, Public Bill Committees, and the Scottish Parliament.

Click through to the ones that are of interest, and you’ll find a graphic showing how the vote was divided, a list of which representatives voted which way, and — crucially — a link to see the debate the vote was part of. Where the vote is or particular significance and where we have the resource to do so, we’ll also offer a plain English description, because it’s often far from easy for the average reader to understand the vote as it comes in from the parliamentary feed without some manual intervention.

Example division: UK Withdrawal from the European Union — Leaving Without an Agreement

Individual voting records

On each MP’s page you’ll find a summary of their stances on important policy areas such as combating climate change or reforming the NHS, described with phrases such as ‘generally voted for’, ‘always voted against’, ‘never voted for’, etc. We’ll explain more about how those statements are generated below. This section of an MP’s page also shows any votes which differ from the way the majority of their party voted.

Example MP: Dianne Abbott

A breakdown of all the votes that went to make up that stance

If you click ‘show votes’ beside any stance on a representative’s voting records page, you’ll see a list of every vote that we believe should feed into that stance, with a link to see each vote in context (and thence the debate it was part of); a link to Public Whip where you can see all the votes in detail; and the option to show the votes which we have identified as feeding into the stance, but less significantly.

Example MP: Dianne Abbott

What voting information we don’t (or can’t) publish

Motions which are agreed without a vote

When a vote is uncontroversial, ie, when there’s no point in going through a formal division because the outcome is obvious from the weight of voices shouting for either side when the Speaker put the question, you’ll see a phrase at the end of the debate: “Question put and agreed to”, or “Question put and negatived”. Here’s an example of that on TheyWorkForYou.

In such cases ‘ayes’ and ‘nos’ data is not generated by Parliament, so we can’t include it in our voting data.

Whether an MP was whipped

Although word often gets out, there’s no official record that says when an MP was required by their party to vote a certain way (known as ‘whipping’), which makes it tricky for us to include. Rumour has it that almost all votes are whipped to a greater or lesser degree (the phrase ‘three line whip’ referring to those votes where an MP would be in danger of being expelled from their party should they defy instructions), something that should definitely be taken into account when viewing your MP’s voting record.

We do note when MPs have voted differently from the majority of their party’s members — we describe this action as a rebellion. We use the terms rebel/rebellion in a slightly different way from the way MPs themselves do: for them, disobeying the whip is a rebellion, but as the whip is kept secret, the closest we can come is to note a difference between their voting record and that of the majority of their party.

Why a representative voted a certain way

Similarly it is, of course, impossible for us to indicate that an MP’s vote didn’t actually reflect their true feelings. All we publish are the facts of whether they voted one way, or another.

Sometimes an MPs' votes won't align with what they've said in public. The best way to find out why is to do the background reading: search through the archive of debates on TheyWorkForYou and see how the MP has spoken on the topic in the past, and if you still don’t understand why your MP has voted as they have, you might want to write and ask them.

Votes in committees

We don’t currently present these in the same way as House of Commons votes or include them in MPs’ voting records: not every MP is on a committee, and including these votes would make it hard to compare like with like.

Interpreting voting data on TheyWorkForYou

Where the voting data comes from

An important thing to know about pretty much all the information on TheyWorkForYou is that we do not generate it ourselves. It all comes from Parliament’s official data outputs.

Each morning, our system fetches the new data from the day before (plus any corrections to previous data that Parliament may have put out) and organises it to publish out onto TheyWorkForYou.

Where potential controversy arises

mySociety, which runs TheyWorkForYou, adheres to a neutral status. This dictates that we do not take any political stance, but, rather, simply present the facts so that everyone has easy access to them.

But there’s one area which is potentially controversial.

What is fact: It is a matter of official record whether an MP (or Lord, or MSP etc) voted one way or another, or were absent for a vote.

What is interpretation: A bit more subjectivity comes into play when deciding how much each individual vote, considered in isolation, can be said to feed into an MP’s stance on any one topic.

As an example: when considering how votes contribute to an MP’s stance on preventing climate change, should one give more significance to a vote to cut all carbon emissions to zero by 2050 than a vote to cut VAT on power saving lightbulbs? Most would say yes, but there’s no universally agreed measure for allocating a weighting to each. Under our system someone has to make a judgement as to whether each vote is important in relation to the subject in question.

Further complications arise with traditions such as the Queen’s Speech, in which many policies are bundled together into what amounts to a manifesto for the parliamentary period ahead. Typically an MP will vote with their party, even if two or three of the policies included are not to their liking — we recognise this by not taking votes on the Queens’ speech into account when determining what we say about an MP’s stance on a particular issue. We treat budget votes similarly.

Any whipped vote could present an MP with a conflict between their views and those of their party — and remember the point above, that we believe almost all votes are whipped. Our understanding is that it’s unusual for an MP to be allowed to vote with their conscience: this only tends to be permitted with rare votes on subjects like assisted dying or abortion, where it’s recognised that to do otherwise would cause real conflict between individuals and their parties.

So how do we make those decisions?

We’ve written a couple of blog posts in the past to explain the detail you can see them here and here.

But the short version goes like this: a mySociety staff member works on the votes within Public Whip to translate motions or amendments — which can be convoluted and not very intuitive — into plain English.

For example:

“Amendment (a) proposed to Lords amendment 5.”

becomes:

“allowing the Government to delay United Kingdom leaving the European Union to an alternative date so long as any delay extends beyond 22 May 2019.“

Or:

“Amendment 1, page 5, line 13, leave out “£5,000” and insert “£30,000”.

becomes:

“higher fines for landlords or letting agencies breaching the law limiting what tenants can be charged for. “

This sometimes takes considerable effort and staff are careful to describe the votes accurately and without bias.

This member of staff then decides whether each vote belongs to one of the voting lines that we display (for example, ‘enforcement of immigration rules’, ‘introducing ID cards’, etc). Then comes the really tricky bit: deciding how much a vote for or against should count towards the stance as a whole.

There are two possible levels that can be applied here: either they have a significant bearing on the topic, or a slight bearing. Again, this decision is applied very carefully and with full consideration of such factors as we described in the previous section.

For any MP, we’ll only include a stance in their voting record on a particular topic if they’ve taken part in at least one vote that we’ve identified as significant.

Finally, our code will take all of this data into TheyWorkForYou and use it to display the MPs’ stances and put it into the wording you see on their voting pages.

Example MP votes: Dianne Abbott

What our voting data can tell you

  • How an MP voted on each motion that makes up a stance — click through from their voting page to see the individual votes, and then through to the debate they were part of for the context. These are a matter of official record.
  • A broad stroke picture of their voting record on each topic — given the complexities that we’ve described above, you should investigate further if you want the full picture of your MP’s position on a specific topic. There are low-effort ways to do this: search their speeches on TheyWorkForYou; or drop them a line on WriteToThem to ask.
  • Which MPs voted for or against a specific motion — again, this is a matter of official record. See the list and a breakdown on the vote’s page either by:
    • clicking through from Recent Votes, or
    • clicking ‘show votes’ on your MP’s voting record page, and then ‘show vote’ beside each voting line.

What our voting data can’t tell you

  • The reason why a representative voted the way they did — for example, many MPs will argue that because of the whip system, they are compelled to vote the way their party tells them to. There’s no official record of this so it’s tricky for us to include that information. An MP might vote for something because while they oppose it, on balance they support the wider budget or Bill that it is contained within. Or an MP/their party might have made an agreement to vote for something they oppose in return for getting support for something else they support.
  • Why representatives are absent from a vote — we’ve tried to address this to some extent by inviting those who are absent due to maternity or sickness leave (or any other reason) to give us explanatory text that we’ll then publish at the top of their page to say that they weren’t present and why. If you are a representative who would like to take advantage of this, please drop us a line at support@theyworkforyou.com.
  • If MPs have been paired — ie two MPs who would have voted opposingly make an agreement that neither of them will vote: this is useful for when an MP is travelling or sick, but again is not officially recorded anywhere.

Common misunderstandings and how to avoid them

What ‘for’ and ‘against’ mean for a specific vote

It can sometimes lead to confusion when the way that a vote is described by Parliament is not the same way that we have worded the topic that the vote falls under.

Division 188: Sale of Public Forest Estate

Here’s an example: the stance that this vote falls within on TheyWorkForYou is ‘selling England’s state owned forests’. In this case, the vote was put by the opposition:

…this House

believes that the Government's intention in the Public Bodies Bill to sell off up to 100 per cent. of England's public forestry estate is fundamentally unsound

So MPs were asked to vote whether they agreed that the sale of forests was unsound (a ‘yes’ vote) or whether they thought it was acceptable (a ‘no’ vote).

This leads to the situation where the wording on an individual page can be easy to misunderstand — if you see a ‘yes’ under the title ‘Selling England’s state owned forests’ then you’re very likely to think that MP voted in favour of it.

It all happens because, as previously mentioned, content on TheyWorkForYou is largely automated, and while it works without a problem for most votes there are always edge cases that introduce potential confusion. We’re working on solutions to this and meanwhile the best way to be sure, if you’re puzzled, is to click through and read the debate for yourself.

Abstaining is not the same as being absent

When an MP abstains from a vote, this is recorded along with the ‘ayes’ and ‘nos’. In practical terms, it means that the MP is present for the debate and has walked through both lobbies (MPs walk through one of two corridors, known as ‘lobbies’ to be counted for a vote). Apparently this is not always recorded accurately. Quite what an MP intends by voting both isn't clear either: perhaps they liked both options? They're showing that they are present but can't make a decision?

On the other hand, when an MP is absent, they simply won’t be in the list of people who have voted — so when looking at a voting page, if your MP’s name isn’t there, you can be pretty sure they didn’t attend the vote. However, see our points above about pairing and the reasons why MPs may be absent from votes before drawing conclusions.

Some MPs don’t vote

Each vote requires four MPs to act as tellers, that is, to count the people passing through the lobby on each side. When fulfilling this role, the MPs do not technically vote themselves but they have aligned themselves with one side or the other, so we take this into account when reporting their stance on an issue.

Speakers and Deputy Speakers do not vote either, unless a deciding vote is needed. In this way, one could say that they only vote if their vote would make a difference to the outcome, which is some consolation if your own MP holds one of these positions and you feel as if you’re not represented in Parliament as a result.

We’re not publishing MPs’ views on subjects

By now, if you’ve read all of the above, you should understand that we’re only publishing the facts of how MPs voted, and this cannot be taken as a judgement on their personality or beliefs, even though it’s often presented that way on social media or in the news.

Parliament often votes many times on the same issue

Decisions are rarely final, even when enshrined in law: the whole way that our Parliament is set up means that topics can come back to the table to be voted on again and again over the years — and a good thing too, given how society’s views change over time on matters such as women getting the vote, the death penalty, or gay marriage.

With some exceptions for particularly notable individual votes, we only include topics in an MP’s voting record on which there have been multiple votes. As a result you should be able to see a more accurate picture of their votes over time.

Feedback

If something important is missing from this page

If you’ve read this far and still have a burning question that is unanswered, please do let us know at support@theyworkforyou.com.

If you spot something wrong on TheyWorkForYou

Please check the Common misunderstandings section above, and if you still think we have made an error (it certainly does happen!) let us know on support@theyworkforyou.com.

If you have ideas for improvements to TheyWorkForYou

We’re always open to hearing ideas for improvement, although we can’t always act on them as quickly as we’d like to (sadly, we’re a small team, often operating without funding — which as you might imagine, limits our capacity quite a bit. If you think that what we’re doing is important, please do consider making a one-off or regular donation).

But if you would like us to know your idea anyway, here’s how. We keep our development list in the form of issues on GitHub and you can add to it like this:

  1. You’ll need to register for GitHub (it’s quick and easy)
  2. Then search in the ‘filters’ box to see if your idea is already under debate. If so, add a comment to the existing issue.
  3. If you can’t find any mention, open a new issue and describe your idea in as much detail as possible.

Alternatively, you can email us on support@theyworkforyou.com.

Photography credits

MP speaking at Theresa May's last Prime Minister's Questions, 24 July 2019, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

Close up of one of the dials on the clock mechanism, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.