25 October 2011

Political whips

This should be a fairly short post, hopefully. I’m working on a few others where my lack of brevity is causing a significant delay, particularly as they have been promised for many months now.

The news was abuzz over the weekend and Monday with the news of a vote that was to take place in the House of Commons. The proposition was to hold a referendum on whether or not to remain part of Europe. At the time of writing (Monday evening) this vote has not yet taken place. This should change by the time this goes live on the web.

I have my own opinions on Europe, but that is not the point of this post. I wish to concentrate more on the relation between referenda, democracy and party whips. The Conservative party said they would impose a “3-line whip” on MPs to ensure that they opposed the bill. It was estimated that up to 70 Conservative MPs may rebel and vote for the motion. It seems unlikely that the motion will pass, due in part to this whip. The meaning of “3-line” as I understand it (as ever, please correct me if my facts are wrong) is that if an MP holds a ministerial post, that they will either be expected to resign from that post, or be sacked, should they choose to go against the party line.

The job of a Member of Parliament is to provide representation in the House of Commons on behalf of their constituents. The job of a party whip is to ensure that an MP of a given party follows that party’s policy, regardless of whether or not it was in a manifesto on which it was elected. It is easily conceivable that the interests of the party to which they belong are different from the interests of the constituents they represent. So the MP is left with a fundamental quandary. In such a situation, they have to choose between two mutually incompatible choices.

If they value democracy, and consider it to be the heart of our system of government, then there can be only one choice: to represent the constituents. If they think it is more important to toe that party line than it is to provide the people of this country a voice in government, then they should obey the party whip. This clearly demonstrates that party whips are inherently opposed to democracy. It is shame on our Parliamentary system that this anachronistic post is allowed to continue to existence.

If party whips were banned then we would lose nothing of value. What we would gain would be MPs who are more accountable to their electorate than they are to their party. This is what democracy should look like. It doesn’t fix everything. There are other problems we have in our system. But this would be one change that would improve the status quo. I am not a revolutionary; I believe most progress comes gradually, but this would be an easy improvement to make that would pave the way for further improvements.

I know that referenda are expensive and it is simply impractical to use them for every decision. Personally, I would welcome a referendum on Europe, given how wide-ranging it is. The question of EU membership is no less relevant today than it was when we last had a referendum in 1975. I wasn’t even born then. My grandparents who had the vote then have all since passed on. Though I am not certain of the statistics (if anyone can provide a source for the numbers, please do!) I think it is reasonable to suppose that those who were eligible to vote in 1975 now form the minority of the electorate today. 36 years of life in Europe may also have changed some opinions. I am not saying what way I would necessarily vote, I merely point out my belief that having the opportunity to have a democratic vote on the matter is more welcome than a dictatorial stance of “this should not be talked about.”



Update: It is now early in the morning and the news is that the motion was defeated as expected. A full list of the rebelling MPs (which, I am glad to say, includes my own representative) may be found here.

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