When reading the results of the recent call for a general election the numbers were 298 for, 56 against. The motion failed to pass due to not reaching the 2/3 majority. It took a little digging to realise that although 298 is much greater than 2/3 of 354 (298+56) the MPs that didn't vote are also counted. This doesn't make sense to me.

I can understand why abstaining from a vote is a allowed - if an MP doesn't feel like they have enough information or has no feeling one way or another on a subject - but why does an MP not voting essentially go in the against column? Is there a underlying rationale behind this (not specifically for a general election vote, but any vote that requires calculation in this way).

  • 6
    The real question seems to be: Why is there a quorum that needs to be met? And that is to avoid abuse. Otherwise, you could just make sure the other party ca't show up and then vote whatever you want.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 10:21
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    Or to answer your question literally, as posed in the title: The MPs that don't vote are not counted and specifically their non-votes don't count as negative votes. You misunderstood the "2/3" part. This is more of an addition to any of the existing answers and doesn't stand on its own, so I post it as a comment.
    – Nobody
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 12:56
  • @Polygnome Not really, because if that were a legitimate concern then the same logic would apply to the majority of other parliamentary business (it doesn't). The real reason is probably just to ensure a particularly high threshold
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 20:45
  • @Nobody That doesn't answer the question literally, because OP is right, requiring 2/3 seats does imply that abstention 'counts as' (pedantry about exactly what is being counted aside..) 'no'.
    – OJFord
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 20:48
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    @DavidRicherby There are plenty of reasons for abstaining, including not having an opinion on a bill or motion (and it not being a party vote), not willing to support the party vote but also not willing to vote against the party, and matched abstentions where one MP is unable to attend a vote for important medical or personal reasons and the major parties have an agreeement in place to cancel out those missing votes by having an opposite voting MP also abstain from voting.
    – user16741
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 22:27

5 Answers 5


Because the Fixed Term Parliaments Act law says so:

if the motion is passed on a division, the number of members who vote in favour of the motion is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).

It's not about who votes and who doesn't, it's a legal requirement that there is a minimum threshold of the entire House which needs to be met. In this case, it was not met.

  • Worth noting that this minimum threshold isn't only a requirement for a vote to have an election, it is isn't it?
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 2:24
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    @Pelinore what do you mean? In this specific circumstance, the FTPA only has the two third majority restriction for an agreed early election motion under section 2.(1). For a no confidence motion under 2.(3), there is no two third majority requirement, and for normal legislative bills there is also no two thirds majority requirement.
    – user16741
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 2:31
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    Ugh! my typo I meant "is" rather than "isn't", so yes, I did mean that :)
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 2:48
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    Does this mean that abstain-votes are for all intends and purposes nay-votes in this particular case, so the only difference between abstaining and voting against is symbolic?
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 12:14
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    @Philipp my opinion on that is “no”. The law being applied sets a threshold for yes votes which must be met, regardless of no votes or abstentions. Yes votes are yes votes, no votes are no votes and abstentions are abstentions, and the threshold is either met or it isn’t.
    – user16741
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 22:00

This is an exception to normal parliamentary procedure. As @Moo correctly answers, the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires a specific threshold to pass.

Closure Motions also have a threshold of 100 (thanks @steve-melnikoff).

Normal contested votes in the House of Commons only require a majority of MPs who voted, provided minimum quorum (40 including the speaker) is met. So theoretically 610 MPs could abstain and 19 vote against a bill and it would still pass.

If there are only MPs present on one side of the debate, it will pass/fail unopposed when voice votes are called.

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    The quorum of 40 is for a division (apart from closure motions, which require 100 MPs to vote in favour). There is no quorum for a voice vote, so it could in theory just be the Speaker to put the question, and one MP to shout aye or no. During adjournment debates, it's not unheard of for there to only be 4 people present: the Speaker (or a deputy), the MP who called the debate, the minister who responds, and a government whip. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 10:27
  • Thanks @SteveMelnikoff I'd forgotten that division is not a given. You've also answered a question I was contemplating regarding whether there are other motions with a threshold. updated
    – Phil
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 11:23

If you watched the proceedings, you would have noticed that the speaker announced something akin to "So the ayes have it. But I have to remind you that according to ...". So the vote was put on record as being in favor of new elections but not gaining the necessary quorum of valid (yes) votes.


Purposely avoiding mentioning the rules causing this, since @Moo already answered with that. If there is no vote for a motion, it is not counted as a vote for that motion. (Circular, I know.)

The UK parliament is set up to maintain the status-quo in cases where there's a tie, or some uncertainty.

Also, if the majority was only out of people who showed up to the vote and voted, you could far more easily affect the outcome of a vote by preventing MPs from showing up to the vote. Whereas if this is to happen now, the status quo is maintained, and if it's a big enough issue, another attempt can be made to vote later.

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    This implies this is usual case for parliamentary votes, but the quorum for the house of commons is 40. The abstentions only matter in the special case of the Fixed term parliament act.
    – Phil
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 9:45
  • Didn't know that, so I had a read of the 2011 FTP act. Is the 2/3 majority only the case when an election is being called? I didn't see it anywhere else in the. document. (Didn't check amended acts) Especially makes sense for calling a general election though.
    – bobsburner
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 10:01
  • Only when an election is called using FTP. Vote of No Confidence can get an election with a simple majority. Or a new Act Of Parliament which specifies 'Not withstanding the FTP' can also call an election. There may be other special cases which require a specific threshold, but I am not aware of any.
    – Phil
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 10:08
  • Maybe worth explaining why... the point is that this fixed term law was brought in to stop governments from calling early elections at opportune moments to cash in on some moment of popularity. It is intended to restrict the government (not so much the opposition, hence a vote of no confidence only requiring normal majority). If all they needed to get around it was a normal majority, it wouldn't restrict them. A possible loophole that's therefore been mentioned is that the government could try calling a motion of no confidence in itself!
    – Rupe
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 16:17
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    "if the majority was only out of people who showed up to the vote and voted, you could far more easily affect the outcome of a vote by preventing MPs from showing up to the vote": but normally it is only out of the people who show up to vote. Given the quorum requirement of 40, a normal motion can pass on a vote of 21 in favor to 20 opposed.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 21:17

That’s the rules for this particular vote: Two thirds of all MPs must vote yes, not two thirds of all voting MPs.

But obviously the MPs are aware of the rules, so if the rules were different (two thirds of voting MPs) then most of the abstainees would have voted “No”.

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