How to break the government’s control of parliament

The Cardinal who heads the Roman Catholic church in Scotland has strongly attacked a government Bill shortly to come before the house of commons and demanded that MPs be given a 'free vote' on it.  According to the BBC's report, —

The leader of the Catholic church in Scotland has urged Gordon Brown to rethink "monstrous" plans to allow hybrid human-animal embryos.  Cardinal Keith O'Brien will use his Easter Sunday sermon to launch a scathing attack on the government's controversial proposals.  He will also call on the prime minister to allow Labour MPs a free vote on the issue at Westminster. Mr Brown has said the bill would improve research into many illnesses. Supporters of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill believe hybrid embryos could lead to cures for diseases including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.

Cardinal O'Brien has already come under attack for allegedly trying to tell MPs how they should vote.  He has reportedly replied, with some justice, that all he has done is express a view on the Bill and urge that MPs should be allowed to vote on it according to their consciences.  Labour MPs, including several ministers, who are also Roman Catholics will be in a difficult position if their party leaders in the House insist on putting out three-line whips on this Bill (the Tories and the LibDems have apparently already decided to 'grant' their members a free vote).   If Catholic Labour ministers defy the whip and vote against the provisions of the Bill to which the Cardinal has taken such strong objection, they may well have to resign their ministerial posts; if they obey the whip and vote for the measure, they will presumably find themselves 'disciplined' by their own church, perhaps even — who knows? — excommunicated from it.  Not a happy situation to be in.

We may question whether the Cardinal is really asking Catholic Labour MPs to vote, or to be allowed to vote, according to their consciences:  presumably he is implicitly, although not in so many words, telling them to vote according to the instructions of the Roman Catholic church, whether or not their consciences happen to agree with those instructions.  And since no-one is forced to belong to or to conform to the requirements of the Roman Catholic church (in this country, anyway), that's surely fair enough.  If you join the club, or even if you're born a member, you observe its rules.  If you don't like them, you can always leave.  And if you remain a member but persistently flout the rules, you get thrown out.  Nothing wrong with that.

The position of the party whips, however, is rather different.  They too instruct their fellow-MPs how to vote, with a corresponding threat of excommunication from their party if they disobey.  But in the case of the MPs, excommunication — withdrawal of the party whip — is likely to lead to the disobedient MP losing his party's endorsement at the next election, which means another candidate for the party being selected for his or her seat.  In most cases, this means that the erring MP will lose the seat, unless he has managed to build up a significant personal following of voters willing to continue to vote for him against the official candidate of the party — and even in the rare cases where this has happened, it's even more rare for the rebel to hold the seat as an independent, or candidate of a different party, for more than one election.  Thus the instructions of the party whips are effectively backed up by the threat that continued disobedience will ultimately mean the end of the rebel's political career.  This is the political equivalent of blackmail: demanding not money but parliamentary obedience with menaces.  

Which prompts the question: why is this not a contempt of parliament and a gross breach of parliamentary privilege?  How dare the party bosses decide in their infinite wisdom and benevolence whether or not to 'allow' hundreds of elected members of parliament to vote on every measure according to their own judgement and conscience?  There's certainly a case in a parliamentary democracy for party loyalty and even party discipline:  some degree of party unity and general adherence to the core values and policies of each major party are essential if government is to function in an orderly way, and if the voter can have reasonable confidence that he is voting for (or against) a reasonably coherent body of political actions and measures likely to be backed by each party's representatives in parliament.  But consider the position in the United States:  party discipline is far looser, partly because the party machine in each state is much more independent of the party machine at the centre than is the case in Britain, but also because the failure of the executive (the president and cabinet) to get its legislation through the Congress because of rebellions on the part of the relevant party's Senators or Congressmen can't lead to the collapse of the government, as it can in Britain.  Consequently the president and the party leaderships are forced to exercise persuasion in order to get their way in Congress:  they can't simply issue instructions to the members of their party and assume that 95 per cent of the flock will automatically obey, whatever they might think privately.  

More than anything else, it's the power of the whips over their MPs in Britain that has led to the collapse of the power of parliament effectively to hold the government to account, to head off reckless and ill-judged action by a headstrong executive even if a substantial body of opinion in parliament individually has doubts about it, and ultimately to dismiss a ministry and insist on the substitution of another.  On top of this seizure by government of control over parliament, we have the effective control of the whole government by the prime minister, who can — and often does — dismiss any minister at will and whose immense power of patronage makes him almost wholly invulnerable, at least until he — or she! — so abuses this personal power that a critical mass of hostility builds up within the Cabinet sufficient to force an over-authoritarian prime minister from office.  But this is a rare and politically cataclysmic event;  and anyway the ultimate safeguard is in the hands of ministers (if they are brave and conspiratorial enough to use it), not their back-bench MPs.  It's true that back-benchers can very occasionally mount a rebellion big enough to defeat a government, but almost never on a vote of confidence, nor on an issue of such momentous importance that defeat on it would force the government to resign.

How then to restore parliament's independence of government, and its power to hold government to account? 

The first thing might be to establish the principle that defeat in the house of commons never obliges a government to resign, however important the issue, provided that parliament continues to vote supply to enable the business of government to be carried on.   Back-bench MPs would no longer be vulnerable to the argument that if a rebellion leads to a government defeat, the government will be forced to resign and call fresh elections at which the rebels' seats might be at risk and their party thrown out of office. 

Secondly, a way needs to be found to break the power of party headquarters at Westminster to dictate to constituency parties which candidates they may or may not adopt.  All three of the serious (i.e. potentially governing) parties would need to force this fundamental change on their national leaders through the internal procedures available in each party's rule book, mainly no doubt concluding at the party's annual conference.

Thirdly, there needs to be an amendment to Erskine May, the parliamentary rule-book, to the effect that any member of parliament who seeks to influence the vote of another member by threatening him, directly or indirectly, with any form of action against him, will be held to be in contempt of parliament and will suffer the penalties laid down for such contempt.

As a tailpiece, I foresee that some readers of this will be tempted to argue that the objectives I propose could most easily be achieved by substituting proportional representation (PR) for First Past the Post as the system for elections to the house of commons, since this would lead to a situation in which no single party would ever have an overall majority in the house of commons.  Thus all decisions would have to be made by a combination of members of different parties who would not be subject to coercion but would need to be persuaded on the merits of each individual issue.  My own view, expressed at no doubt tedious length in several earlier posts and comments in this blog, is that any such benefits from PR would be more than outweighed by its negative consequences, including especially the abolition of the power of the electorate to choose a government with a pre-defined set of policies, and the substitution of the power of a group of politicians to choose a government and  a set of government policies after the election in a process of bargaining that would conclude with a government for which not a single voter had voted, and a set of policies which had not even been devised when the electorate went to the polls.  I know that many sensible and liberal-minded people strongly disagree about this:  but I hope that those who comment here will resist the temptation to re-start a debate on PR, concentrating instead on other ways to restore the authority of parliament and to break the power over our elected MPs of the prime minister, ministers and above all the whips.


9 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Thanks for an excellent piece.  I think the power of the whips over members – members who were elected to represent their constituents and whose consciences and regard for the good of the nation should be the chief determiners of how they vote – is the biggest single reason why MPs as a group are regarded with considerable contempt by a large part of the electorate.  The abolition of the whip system is essential if Parliament is to regain the respect of the nation and if those who habitually refrain from voting in elections are to be brought to see Parliament as anything but a gasworks subservient to the will of the Prime Minister (if a gasworks is capable of subservience). 

    I am surprised that party machines can exercise so much power over constituency parties.  Are there never cases of a constituency party saying ‘We want so-and-so as our candidate, we like him and his independent attitude, we don’t care how many times he got across the whips in the last Parliament, and we won’t have HQ foisting anyone else on us!’?  What coercion could HQ actually bring to bear in such a case?

  2. amk says:

    Allow me to be the first to broach the subject of PR…

    Have you considered separating the executive from the legislature following the example of the USA, and electing the former using a single-winner system (e.g. IRV) and the latter a PR system (e.g. STV)? If so, could you point me to a discussion of this? It seems to me that the arguments in favour of FPTP apply to the executive, and the arguments in favour of PR apply to the legislature.

    Brian writes:  This is an interesting and stimulating suggestion, well worth discussion.  I have two serious reservations about it.  First, it would entail a huge revolution in the way we are governed, being in effect the abandonment of our system of Westminster parliamentary democracy, one of whose distinguishing characteristics is that the prime minister and members of his/her government are also members of the legislature where they can almost daily be cross-examined and required to announce and defend their policies.  I don't think this system, although currently flawed, is generally seen as having failed so comprehensively and irretrievably that the only remedy for its present defects is to scrap it completely and move to a new, unfamiliar form of government which might well throw up even more intractable problems than those we now face. 

    Secondly, in the context of the present post about how best to restore parliamentary control over the executive and thus significantly to reduce  government (and especially prime ministerial) control of parliament, I fear that the cure proposed — completely to separate the executive from parliament — would be worse than the disease.  Although it's true that the directly elected prime minister would lose his control over the separately elected parliament, of which by definition he would not even be a member, at the same time parliament would lose any hope of being able to control the government or even to hold it effectively to account.  Only the prime minister would have been directly elected (it would be impossible to elect the whole government since ministerial posts have to be able to change at any moment, and the prime minister is bound to have the major say in ministerial appointments and dismissals), and he would be free, obviously, to appoint whoever he liked, from outside as well as from inside parliament, to serve as ministers, just as the directly elected president of the United States appoints members of his Cabinet.  Since most ministers thus appointed would be political nonentities with no personal political base, the prime ministers dominance over them would be even greater than it is now.  The sole leverage that parliament would have for influencing government policy would be the threat of refusing to pass the laws sent to it by the executive, which is a blunt instrument that can in practice be used only rarely, since it runs the risk of paralysing the essential business of governance if used often or indiscriminately.  Ministers (but probably not the prime minister) could presumably be summoned for examination by parliamentary committees, but this would be a weak substitute for the continuous presence of all ministers in parliament as full members at all times, as we have now:  and for having among our MPs many members from both major parties who have personal ministerial experience, sometimes going back over many years.  And finally, it would remove from the house of commons the function which more than any other bestows on it prestige, authority and respect (such as they are!):  the power to select the prime minister and the party that is to form the government, to sustain them in power, and in the last resort to get rid of them.  The US Congress, especially the Senate, enjoy great prestige, despite not having the function of creating or dismissing governments, for a number of historical reasons and because of the possession of extensive powers which could not easily be transplanted across the Atlantic.  The house of commons would be seriously emasculated by the loss of the government-making power, and therefore weakened further in its task of keeping the executive in check and holding it to account.

    However, I entirely agree with you that First Past the Post is by far the most effective and productive kind of electoral system for a body whose principal task is to create and sustain the government, while some form of PR is probably preferable for a purely deliberative and legislative body.  Unfortunately I think that for the reasons just described any attempt to divorce the two functions in our existing system would create more problems than it would solve.  But please let's reserve a debate on the pros and cons of PR for some other occasion! 

  3. John Miles says:

    You are quite right to fear this is another of those topics which – even if you ban any mention of PR – has sufficient implications and repercussions to last most of us the rest of our lives.

    So I'll do my best to stick to the specifics of this particular case.

    I'm not convinced much of this is anything to do with "conscience."

    One assumes – perhaps wrongly – that the cabinet were told about the bill Mr Brown intends to introduce, and that any minister who had moral qualms about it would surely have said so in cabinet.

    One goes on to assume that the matter would have been discussed, and that some sort of a reasonable compromise policy would have been hammered out.

    But, as Captain Queeg might well have pointed out, you can't assume a goddamn thing about Mr Brown and his cabinet.

    My impression – which could be wildly wrong – is that it never occurred to any of our catholic ministers that there was anything morally dubious about Mr Brown's proposals; and that they've all been so completely taken by surprise by Cardinal O'Brien's tirade that they don't know how to get themselves out the mess they've got themselves into.

    Even though they seem to have no real moral objections to Mr Brown's proposals they seem to be scared stiff about disobeying the orders they get from Cardinal O'Brien.

    Presumably Cardinal O'Brien gets them from the Pope.

    Afterthought: what does Mr Blair think about all this?

    What advice would he give to Mr Browne or Ms Kelly?

    Brian writes:  I have no way of knowing whether your assumptions and speculations are well- or ill-founded, John, but they are amusing to — well, to speculate about.  Since my blog post and your comment were written, however, the prime minister has announced that he will allow Labour ministers and other MPs a free vote on the three most contentious issues in the bill, but by implication not on the bill as a whole.  I doubt if this will satisfy the more fervent and obedient of the Catholic MPs, still less the swivel-eyed foaming cardinals.  But it does probably represent the outcome of anxious negotiations with the Catholic Labour ministers. 

  4. Ian says:

    Thanks for that Brian – you make many interesting points, some of which I might take issue with, so let's get them out of the way first…

    First the idea of religion being similar to a "club", in the sense that one can decide to "leave" religion just as easily as one can leave a club. As an atheist, I am not probably not the best qualified to comment, but I would have thought that a committed member of (say) the Roman Catholic Church might very well dispute this idea. After all, what does the word "faith" mean in the first place? It means having belief without necessarily having or needing evidence for that belief. It is a defining characteristic of major religions that the "faithful" are *required* to toe the line, regardless of their personal views. One must have … faith.

    Secondly as regards the working of the US executive, in particular the statement: "they can't simply issue instructions to the members of their party and assume that 95 per cent of the flock will automatically obey, whatever they might think privately." I think that the events of the last few years have shown that the "flock" generally have done exactly that. It's a shame because there are many admirable aspects to the US system, some of which you point out. It may be that the problem is not the system itself but the corruption of that system, however that is a different topic altogether.

    Last a word or two about PR, leading on to a point about the idea that control of power by only a few people is obviously a bad idea. You make a valid point about the problem of coalition governments effectively tossing out their manifestos. My view has long been that voting on the basis of manifesto commitments is first highly uncommon, and second naive. Uncommon, because how many "normal" people actually read manifestos in the first place? Naive because history repeatedly shows us that governments are quite capable of ignoring their election promises, and generally do just that. I think that people can read between the lines. If, to take a random example, a Tory government makes a manifesto commitment not to raise taxes, most reasonably aware people take that for what it is – a lie. However the same people recognise that probably taxes will be lower under a Tory government than they would be under (say) a Labour government. It's the intention behind the words, the *spirit* of the promise that counts. In the case of PR, the same would apply: people would vote for the party that gave them the most "feel good", be that Labour, Tory, Liberal, Green, BNP, whatever.

    The other main problem people have with PR is of course the idea that it would lead to "weak" governments. A coalition government must be always willing to compromise, to other parties, and to the electorate. In this country this is generally seen as "a bad thing". Thatcher was popular precisely because she "stood up" to various perceived destabilising influences. She was famously "Not For Turning". Major was seen as a lame duck, because he could not keep his party united. Blair was initially popular partly because he faced down the "Old Labour" stalwarts in his own party. People *like* strong leadership. They vote for it in droves.

    Keeping that in mind, what is necessarily so wrong with the whip system? It seems to me that it is in fact what people want. Removal, or major mitigation of the system would lead to governments appearing "weak" in the eyes of the electorate, and we (the voters) don't want that. We prefer, to put it bluntly, to be dictated to. We just don't like it put like that. We fail to understand that a government that is truely representative of its people, must also be one in which decisions must be arrived at carefully (slowly), and where debate (dissent) will be commonplace.

    In the end, I think that honesty is the key. Politicians must be allowed (by the electorate) to display honesty. Disagreements in principle should be seen as just that, not disloyalty. Whips should be got rid of, it is indeed nothing more than blackmail. I just don't see how it can be done without a major sea change in popular understanding and education. Maybe we should start with a National Curriculum change?

    Brian writes:  Thank you for that, Ian: some interesting points.  Very briefly: 1.  Abandoning one's faith, in the sense of one's church or sect, may indeed be painful, but it won't normally have the dire practical consequences for one's career and life-style that de-selection is liable to have for an MP.  You can leave your church but go on believing whatever you like and behaving pretty much the way you were before.  2.   I don't know the statistics for disobedience to the party whips in the US Congress, but I am sure that there is much more cross-voting and other collaboration 'across the aisles' than there is across the floor in the UK parliament.  3.  A government elected to govern alone, without having to make concessions to other parties and elected on a specific published manifesto, can be held to account if it fails to honour its manifesto promises, however few people have read it.  A coalition government taking office after extended policy horse-trading between its constituent parties can't. Moreover coalitions are inherently unstable, making medium-term planning impossible in both the public and the private sectors.  4.  You answer your own question ("What's … so wrong with the whips system?") yourself: it relies on blackmail instead of on rational persuasion — and above all it enables the executive to keep iron-clad control of the legislature, which to my mind is unreservedly a Bad Thing.

  5. John Miles says:

    You're quite right to say it's only speculation, but what's so terrible about that?

    Was there anything about this bill in any manifesto?

    It looks to me very much as if the Prime Minister just thought, "O yes, that's a spiffinfg wheeze, let's have a three-line whip," without bothering to consult, or even inform, the Cabinet about it. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the actual bill, is that a sensible way for Mr Bean to behave?

    Brian writes:  This bill has been the subject of an extensive public consultation and has received the strong backing of virtually every relevant professional body.  It has been subjected to very long parliamentary scrutiny and has passed all its stages in the House of Lords.  It is a formal government measure and as such all Labour MPs and peers are expected to support it, as they are expected to support any other government measure unless there are strong reasons why their support should be declared optional — usually because a bill includes provisions that raise difficult moral questions.  No-one suggested that the resolution to support the government's intention to go to war against Iraq should be on a free vote, and there couldn't be a much more difficult moral issue than that.  The main issue in the present bill is whether scientists conducting medical research using stem cells should be permitted to use the outsides of hollowed-out animal eggs instead of human eggs, into which to inject microscopic amounts of human DNA, constituting a microscopic bundle of cells from which within a maximum of 14 days they would extract stem cells for use in treating a raft of common diseases which wreck and destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people; within 14 days the tiny bundle of cells would be destroyed.  Developing anything into a hybrid human/animal foetus would remain a criminal offence, as now.  It's only now, after the bill has been publicly examined and debated for three years, that a group of Roman Catholic cardinals have suddenly declared that this whole procedure is a gross breach of respect for human life, etc.  There is no basis for the Catholic objections in reason or philosophy, and the idea that their barmy and irrational doctrines, equating a fertilised egg at conception with a human person, should be allowed to prevent medical research that could save thousands of lives and avert misery and suffering for millions, is deeply objectionable — not least because of the indifference to human life that it demonstrates, paradoxically enough.  Personally I can't see the smallest ethical or moral issue in this obviously desirable measure.  It actually reduces the extent to which human eggs will be used for developing stem cells: and the stem cells are needed so as eventually to save human lives.  The cardinals don't seem to be able to grasp that.  As explained in my original post above, the entire whipping system seems to me deeply undesirable and in my view governments and other party leaders should rely on persuasion to secure the support of their MPs for the party line, not on threats to ruin their careers.  But if any bill is to be protected against superstitious attack by a three-line whip, this one should.  Nevertheless the prime minister has agreed to allow a free vote on the three allegedly controversial provisions of the bill.  If the clause to permit development of stem cells is defeated as a result of religious obscurantism, I can't imagine how the noisy prelates who have stirred up this feverish opposition will be able to sleep at night or look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. 

    Polly Toynbee's admirable Guardian article here seems to me to make an absolutely unanswerable case. 

    So yes, if Gordon Brown had decided to insist on a three-line whip on all parts of this bill, it would have been a conspicuously sensible way in which to behave.  As for pure unsupported speculation, there's no particular objection to it, but no point in it either.  And sometimes it can come dangerously close to a smear.

  6. John Miles says:

    You say, "As for pure unsupported speculation, there's no particular objection to it, but no point in it either.  And sometimes it can come dangerously close to a smear."

    Absolutey right .

    And sometimes it can come dangerously close to the truth.


    In the UK all citizens may vote, unless they are a peer, known to be insane or are under 18.  No doubt there is some nice (archaic) point regarding peers – let that lie, but the latter two restrictions are clearly to do with competence.  I want to address the type of competence required, if a voter is to bring into being good governance.

    Many vote out of habit or dogma.  Rising numbers with Dementia/Alzheimer’s might vote with less than good reason.  Many live their lives with little maturity, easily manipulated by advertisers, pop idols and political spin. Minority voters in “safe seats” are effectively disenfranchised.  While a move is afoot to lower the voting age to 16, another seeks to raise the school leaving age to 18.  How many aware, life-skilled, school children are there? This is how things stand with the electorate. It is small wonder we are routinely manipulated, lied to, and let down by those they elect.

    Universal suffrage is taken as a “given good” – a hallowed goal that is trumpeted to the skies. Why? The case is surely not made. A ragbag of largely incompetent voters return incompetent MPs who perform incompetent governance and from whom are drawn incompetent ministers and an incompetent (or delusional, or megalomaniac, or dysfunctional) PM. In fact, we vote rosette and get rosette-stands – as defined above, when we should be voting for proven, capable, unfettered minds.

    In every-day life, we have to take a test or pass an examination to do anything that impinges on the public. Voting into power the kind of governments we have seen in recent years, led by the likes of Blair and Brown, demonstrates a lamentable lack of electoral acumen in enfranchised voters. Today, Anne McElvoy, columnist for the Evening Standard, touched on the likelyhood that many current “citizens” would not pass the citizenship test.  I am of the opinion that a vast number would also fail a “Voter Test”, whereby ones ability to spot charlatans, poseurs, the delusional and dysfunctional, is put to the test, along with ones level of awarness in social and governmental matters. 

    The great lie of democracy underpinned by universal suffrage and led by a butt-naked Emperor, will florish until we lay a foundation of voters who will only vote for “elders”: the truly sage and wise. Were this to come about, many of this country’s intractable ills might be addressed, and conquered.

    Brian writes:  I disagree respectfully but profoundly with this entire thesis.  The idea that some dictator or self-appointed ruling clique (benevolent or, more likely, not) should be entrusted with the power to decide who shall be qualified to participate in the choice of government of their own country and society seems to me offensive.  Anyone familiar with the peoples of poor and under-developed countries where there are high rates of illiteracy, lack of education and poverty, and indeed anyone who has ever done door-to-door canvassing for a political party in Britain, will know that the most down-trodden and inarticulate peasant, or the humblest manual labourer, is likely to be as good a judge of those offering themselves for election to government or parliament as the most erudite Oxford graduate, and in many cases better.  Shrewd political judgement is not the monopoly of those who regard themselves as "the truly sage and wise".  Self-government, not government by unrepresentative and inevitably corrupt élites answerable to no-one but themselves, is the basic principle of a civilised society.  Nor do I accept the description here of 'incompetent' voters, ministers or prime minister:  the great majority of elected MPs, ministers, shadows or back-benchers, of all parties, are sensible, hard-working, under-paid citizens who want to make the country a better place, and to slag them all off indiscriminately as an incompetent rag-bag is to do most of them a great injustice.  Such cynicism about the way we are governed is sadly blinkered.  Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!  (Those unable to translate it can google it.)  Or do I detect a cheekload of tongue?


  8. Hi Brian

    You seem to have taken a number of my words as loaded with meaning that I did not invest in them. I have worked with shovel and fork-lift (I have a certificate – incompetently awarded) as well as mind and desk; got on with company directors and lorry drivers as I steered a small business. I am well aware of incompetence (not a pejorative term) and competence, across all walks of life. Where did the bias in your response come from? Of course there will never be a Voting Test!  But if there were, an assuming the test were skilfully composed, passes would come from wisdom not cleverness and would thus cut right across all groups in society.  In conclusion; I acknowledge sweeping assertions about  the Westminster phenomenon, but that it needs to be swept away is not one of them.

    "In every-day life, we have to take a test or pass an examination to do anything that impinges on the public."



    “Intolerance” I can’t abide

    anathema the name.

    The same is true of “prejudice”

    practitioners bring shame.

    But “choice”: the most abhorrent

    against cohesion runs

    let choice be purged from daily life

    by us – the chosen ones.

    Brian writes:  Barrie, I accept your re-definitions, of course, although if 'incompetent' isn't a pejorative term, I don't know what it is!  I'm delighted by the concept of a test for wisdom, and I don't see how you can restrict the right to vote to the wise unless such a test can be devised.  I think Plato wanted to confine the franchise to mathematicians, didn't he? 

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