I recently read an article that expressed the views of four Cambridge University experts regarding the need for reform in the UK’s ‘mother of parliaments’. These experts were professors of Public Law, English Law, Public Policy and History. Their knowledge of these subjects give weight to the professors’ voices, but will they be heard? As the UK now has a Government that has made manifesto pledges about constitutional reform and has promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ to address their pledges, we can only hope that authoritative voices will be listened to. There is no sign of that yet.
Between them, the Cambridge professors called for a range of reforms: abolishing Standing Order Number 14; redesigned chambers, to create a better atmosphere for constructive debate; better work spaces for MPs; change the electoral system – go for proportional representation; shaking up the second chamber – possibly even abolish the House of Lords. All of them proposed reforms, rather than asking whether the UK’s democracy could be better even without reform. Could our elected representatives simply do a better job? Would politics work better if both the electorate and the elected had a shared understanding and expectation of representative democracy? Reforms are fine – better buildings are certainly needed – but will take time. It would be faster to make the unreformed work as it should first.
It seems that the greatest problem with representative democracy is identifying who is represented. Regrettably, those who are elected too often think that they serve the best interests of their political parties and not the interests of the nation or their constituents first. This may seem like a trite point, but it is vital. All MPs serve all of their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them, and there is even a Code of Conduct that sets out the duties of MPs. That Code does not mention any duty to political party.
Duties mentioned in the Code echo the words of Parliamentary statesmen who have emphasised Members’ first duty to nation, second to constituents and that any duty to party organization or programme comes third. Party manifestoes and policy do not take precedence over primary duties.
Why is this so important in modern British politics? Fundamentally, because without application of and adherence to the Code by all MPs, party politics gets in the way of representative democracy and prevents Members acting in what they judge first to be the best interests of the UK or their constituents, in that order. This problem is exacerbated if the party of Government has a large majority and is made substantially worse by the practices of Whipping. There is no doubt that party Whips have an important role to play in encouraging MPs to vote and even informing them of party policy with regard to motions to be voted upon. Practices that allow Whips to offer inducements to MPs to toe the party line are entirely contrary to the principles of representative democracy and duties of Members. There is a Standard Note1 in the House of Commons Library that includes an overview of the functions and duties of the Whip’s Office. That Note contains the paragraph: “There is certainly an important element of carrot as well as stick in the way whips persuade Members, and the Chief Whip is able to offer positions in government or on popular select committees in return for loyalty in the division lobbies, recalling Ostrogorski’s reference to the Whip’s eighteenth century title – ‘Patronage Secretary’ or ‘Secretary for Political Jobs’.”
How can it possibly be an accepted practice in Parliament that elected representatives may be offered inducements to act against what they themselves judge to be best for the UK or for their constituents? We may like to trust that our representatives are honourable and will always do their duties, but any practice that may tempt them to do otherwise should not be permitted. Such practices should be banned and all MPs allowed to vote freely, for what they judge best. This would actually encourage and promote good debate upon the issues of greatest importance to the nation and its people; when allied with Standing Order 14, some practices of the Whip’s Office mitigate strongly against well-informed decisions being made in the House of Commons.
In 2019, I tried to raise a UK Parliament petition to allow MPs to vote freely upon a motion. That petition was rejected by the House of Commons Petitions Committee, on the grounds that: “Decisions about whipping are the responsibility of the political parties, not the UK Government or Parliament.” It is quite shocking that a practice that may affect the outcome of ‘democratic’ votes in the House of Commons isn’t considered to be a matter for Government or Parliament.
It’s not just our elected representatives who need to be better understand and practice their duties. We, the electorate, must all understand that elected MPs represent all of their constituents, not just those who vote for them and that they are our representatives, not delegates. This should encourage more of us to engage in politics; too often “they don’t represent me” is heard from those who could be making their voices heard and be letting their MP know what is important to them. This is particularly true when some MPs might be inclined to think they must toe the party line and have heard nothing contrary in their constituency. We need to let them know what our opinions are but accept that they will exercise their own judgement of what is best. We can do that safe in the knowledge that we can judge their performance in future. This understanding between constituent and representative was summed up well by Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.
So, whilst reform might well be necessary to create the best possible democracy, there is much that can be done now to make it better. We should all be asking our representatives to do it – now. Why wait for reform?
1: ‘The Whip’s Office”: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN02829/SN02829.pdf