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Did MPs with a technical background vote differently on the Brexit deal?

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To what degree did MPs with a technical or engineering background or interest vote differently in the parliamentary Brexit vote last Saturday? Findings by E&T suggest tech-savvy MPs were less likely to support the Letwin Amendment.

Does it make any difference whether MPs have technical or engineering-related qualifications or interests? 

The results of an E&T analysis suggest that MPs with tech-related backgrounds were 12 per cent more likely to have voted against an amendment to the Brexit bill, last Saturday. The so-called Letwin Amendment was accepted by a thin margin of a mere 16 votes. Our analysis raises questions on whether MPs' backgrounds should be scrutinised further, especially when decisions are taken by a hairsbreadth. 

The Letwin Amendment helped to delay approval of a Brexit deal and pushed the decision into this week. After last Saturday's vote thwarted Boris Johnson’s plans, he was required, by law, request an extension –  which he did, via two letters to the EU. 

House of Commons speaker John Bercow refused yesterday to allow MPs to immediately have another go at the 'meaningful vote’, the parliamentary vote on Brexit. 

Qualification matters, but only as a proxy for party affiliation

According to data collected by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CAsE), a British lobbying organisation that champions science and engineering, 106 MPs have some sort of STEMM background - defined as MPs who sit in parliament since 2017, "with an interest or background in science, technology, engineering, maths or medicine*”. 

Of those 106, 45 per cent or 48 MPs were counted having some sort of technical and engineering-related qualifications or interests. Of those, 22 voted in favour of the amendment preventing immediate approval, the rest did not. 

The comparison between the entire group of STEMM MPs and those with specific tech and engineering backgrounds showed that a voting difference for the vote on 19 October vote did not hold up for all STEMM MPs, only for those with tech/engineering skills or interests. 

Why might it be that MPs with a technical STEMM background were more inclined to vote against the amendment? The answer, most probably, has little to do with the vote itself, and may rather lie in party affiliation. Engineers and tech MPs were found more likely to belong to the Conservative party. 

Among the 285 Conservative MPs, of which 99.3 per cent voted in favour of no amendment, the number of tech MPs reaches 9.1 per cent. 

In contrast, MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Scottish National Party and the Independent Group for Change – who all advocated for the amendment – were found to have a much lower share of 6.98 per cent.

In other words, there is a lower proportion of technical STEMM MPs in the parties backing the amendment.

The same picture is drawn with the 12 new MPs with STEMM backgrounds who joined parliament after the 2017 general election.

Of those 12, five were identified has having technical/engineering backgrounds. All five – Kemi Badenoch, Vicky Ford, Eddie Hughes, Rachel Maclean and Neil O’Brien –belong to the Conservative party. None of the five voted in favour of the amendment, last Saturday.  

In an email to E&T Magazine, CAsE said it would not comment on E&T's data findings as "the answers are probably quite complex and we don't feel we have a good enough steer on this”.

On Johnson’s Brexit deal, the organisation and its executive director Dr Sarah Main said that “the interests of science and engineering will be served by a constructive relationship with the European Union in the future. CaSE urges Parliament to work together in reaching a consensus that supports science and engineering. An agreement must provide a firm basis for enabling a long-lasting and fruitful future scientific partnership with the EU.

An earlier analysis by CAsE suggested there "there are very serious implications for UK science and engineering in the event of a 'no-deal' Brexit, across people, funding and regulation", according to Main. "With the threat of 'no-deal' an ever-present possibility, we are calling on Parliament to avoid this outcome."

A 2018 briefing paper issued by the House of Commons Library revealed more insight into the subject of MPs’ social background. Although from a low base, the number of MPs recorded with occupations as architects, surveyors, and engineers immediately prior to the 2017 election was twice as high in raw numbers among Conservative MPs as among Labour MPs.

While technical and engineering-related skills may not have directly influenced the parliamentary vote on 19 October, Simon Edwards, the IET’s director of governance and external engagement, argues that “in order for us to deal with the big issues that we face, such as decarbonisation, it is crucial that more of our elected representatives have an awareness of the central role that engineering and technology will have in resolving these issues and improving our quality of life.”

*CAsE stated that is has taken as much care as possible when determining MPs’ backgrounds and interests, but it "cannot be sure we have identified all MPs that fit the criteria". 

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