Thursday, January 29, 2009

Choosing When to Rebel

Two welcome things emerged from yesterday's Heathrow debate.

Firstly, Tory Transport spokesman Theresa Villiers admitted that there was, after all, a case for the expansion of airport capacity in the South East. Previously she had denied any need whatsoever.

Secondly, the fact that there were no Tory rebels at all demonstrated a first class whipping operation was in place. Even though I find myself on the other side of the argument, I can see that from a party discipline viewpoint, it was a job well done. If in government there is a small majority, this sort of iron discipline will have to be imposed with some degree of regularity.

I've asked myself several times over the last 24 hours what I would have done if I had had to vote last night. To have been the only Tory rebel would have required balls of steel. And it would have been a very lonely and isolated position. It's interesting to talk to people about their logic for rebelling against the party whip. Some will only ever do it on matters of conscience, some believe it is wrong to rebel on an issue which was in a party's manifesto and others believe you should judge each issue on its merits giving only a passing concern to what the whips say.

MPs have to recognise that they are elected under their party banner rather than because of their wonderful individual qualities. Therefore, they do owe a duty to their respective whips and the party's policy platform. But equally, they are elected as representatives rather than delegates, so they also have a duty both to represent the views of their constituents but also their own consciences.

The other balance to get right is the frequency of rebelling. If you become seen as a serious rebel you then get tagged as a 'maverick'. Mavericks can get a lot of media publicity, but their influence wanes with every rebellion. The Labour benches have about 20 MPs who can be expected to rebel on any given issue. We all know who they are. But they have virtually no impact with government ministers - the very people they are supposed to want to influence.

I am sure this will provoke comments from purists who feel that MPs should only ever vote the way they feel they ought to. Oh if only life were that simple. We don't live in a word of idealism. We live in a world of 'realpolitik' and those politicians who achieve things in their careers on behalf of their constituents and the country are those who recognise that.

20 comments:

Raedwald said...

Ah, this is where we fundamentally disagree. Sir Patrick Cormack, for all his other faults, earned my eternal praise when he said 'I've always taken the line it's country-constituency-party, in that order.'

You seem to suggest that party-constituency-country is the way to go. Well, maybe this reflects the priorities of the apparatchiks who infest the Commons these days rather than old warhorses such as Sir Patrick, but it's also the most proximate reason for the diminution of the health of our democracy.

The Commons was never and is not now a debating chamber for members of the established political parties. It is the democratic seat of the people's representatives, and 98.6% of the electorate are NOT members of any of the three main parties.

The pernicious party system that has evolved, of stifling centralist control, mirrors the growth of Statism from 1979. Since then, the Conservative party has lost well over a million members.

The main parties are now less representative of the nation's allegiances than the National Trust, the Women's Institute or the Royal Horticultural Society, all of which enjoy more members.

The health of the Commons will not be restored until all MPs can make the same claim as Sir Patrick.

Guthrum said...

MPs have to recognise that they are elected under their party banner rather than because of their wonderful individual qualities.

That is were it has all gone wrong, the reduction of 646 MP's to lobby fodder has undermined our Democracy, reduced the quality of MP's to that of Derek Conway.

The very fact that you accept this as a norm, is truly disturbing. Basically you are saying you can put up a monkey wearing the right rosette and as long as he can be trained to lift his arm on command that OK.

Gordon Bennett said...

When I was supporting the Conservatives, I don't recall the last manifesto saying that they were going to become a bunch of tree-hugging hippies.

Voting against this is an abandonment of Conservative principles. Choosing a solution of high-speed rail which will cost the taxpayer, fail to deal with the problem and create lots more unionised jobs is akin to the Conservatives politically shooting themselves in the foot.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Bollocks.

Just look at the carnage the Labour Party has wreaked on this country with whipping and supine lobby fodder.

davidc said...

'country, constituency, party'?

i think not surely it is now 'self self oh yes and party'?

Man in a Shed said...

The Heathrow capacity de bottlenecking ( which is what we are talking about ) will not go away with the current Conservative policy, until the jobs that depend on it have moved to France, Germany and the Netherlands. And that should happen slowly over a decade.

After that now one will want to come here, and the capacity problem will be solved.

My advise to potential rebels is to think of this as a long war. Timing is key. Wait until the high speed rail project is cancelled as too expensive or studies show it will generate more traffic for Heathrow rather than deliver it - then try again.

Rebellion with no chance of success can be vanity, unless a fundamental principle is at stake. Plotting to over turn the current reality is far smarter.

Heathrow will get its third runway, the question is just how much unnecessary economic damage needs to be done to the UK before this is achieved.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I found this very enlightening. I had not considered the intricacies of rebelling, and the law of diminishing returns, in term's of a rebel's credibility. It makes sense.

I am no so sure that the "usual suspects" are so ineffectual. Even Diane Abbott has been telephoned by Gordon Brown in the recent past. If she wasn't a contender, he wouldn't have pissed her out of the window.

The Penguin said...

Carry on like this and see the continued fall of voters bothering to turn out to elect anyone.

The Penguin.

Martin Day said...

Yes, I think Labour MP's need to Rebel and send a delegation to No.10 to despatch Gordon Brown! He should be told to go fourth and multiply!

Brown should go - then lets have a General Election.

JuliaM said...

"I've asked myself several times over the last 24 hours what I would have done if I had had to vote last night. To have been the only Tory rebel would have required balls of steel. And it would have been a very lonely and isolated position. "

If you don't have the courage of your own convictions, why should anyone vote for you...?

"I am sure this will provoke comments from purists who feel that MPs should only ever vote the way they feel they ought to. Oh if only life were that simple. We don't live in a word of idealism. We live in a world of 'realpolitik'.."

And it's working out perfectly, is it?

I'm afraid it simply marks you out as one unable to stand on their own two feet and wanting the 'comfort blanket' of everyone else's agreement.

That's not leadership. A good look at your party leader ought to have told you that...

strapworld said...

I agree 100% with Raedwald. Time was when Members did put Country, Constituents and then Party in that order.

Time was when Members of Parliament tested the Executive from all sides without favour.

The Whipping of Members of Parliament should be illegal. Each has his/her own duty towards C.C.P.
and should, on all occasions, vote as their conscience dictates.

But, that said, Manifesto's on which the people decide whom to vote for,should be a legally binding contract between MP and their constituents.

What a terrific Parliament we would have when MP's could say what they believe without fear.

((I thought, by the way, watching the game last night, that West Ham are now playing terrific football. Clarke has certainly brought shape and discipline whilst the manager has brought skill and flair!!))

hypocriticalucu said...

To be honest, I am seriously considering not renewing my membership if policies such as these are not rethought.

Why can DC not understand that building a railway does not transport one to America or China? Without a different airline business model, a railway is about as much use as a ferry when one wants to travel to Birmingham. Do the Conservatives want us to be the king of European bucket flights, that tend to have a point-to-point business model rather than hub business model? Or is Boris Island, which will only be successful if Heathrow is significantly downsized, a serious alternative?

Fair enough, they will gain a few votes in the area around Heathrow. But what about the rest of the country? Do we not have a say in what is best for us, or is everyone so blinkered with the BBC's coverage of the green agenda?

This policy stinks of power for power's sake. It reminds me of the UCU.

Mr said...

As many others have said here Iain, MPs should be putting at least constituency before party. But they are not.

And then the politicians of all rosette colours wonder why the public are disengaged with politics?

Iain Dale said...

Mr, I never suggested that they shouldn't.

Simon Gardner said...

"MPs have to recognise that they are elected under their party banner rather than because of their wonderful individual qualities"

Well up to a point Lord Copper.

As you found out in Norfolk North at the May 2005 GE*, some MPs manage to get themselves quite a following in their own right. But only up to a point.

And like you, I recognize that that’s how the system works. With the odd - very odd - exception MPs owe their places in Parliament to party. (Some other commenters here wish it weren’t so but frankly, I don’t see how a modern democracy or governance can work otherwise.)

Which is precisely why the mythic MP/constituency sacred link is overblown nonsense and is precisely why the logical and democratic thing is STV elections in multi-member constituencies. That electoral system even allows the voters to turf out an individual they don’t like whilst still voting their party.


*It’s about time some benighted Tory safe seat persuaded you to be it’s MP.

neil craig said...

Any MP who says they "judge each issue on its merits giving only a passing concern to what the whips say" is being economical with the truth.

Your discussion of the ethics of rebellion was on the ball but you didn't mention the option of abstention. I don't know how many, of all parties, abstained.

Sophie Fernandes said...

"MPs have to recognise that they are elected under their party banner rather than because of their wonderful individual qualities"

In practice yes, but according to our constitution the 'individual' is elected on constituency level not the party.

There is a lot to be said for politicians of today not standing by their convictions and speaking their minds... too many career politicians that tow the line in hope of a future Cabinet position.

More like Eric Forth and David Davis please!

West Ealing said...

MPs surely are elected to represent their constituents.

My MP Stephen Pound rejected the views of 100s/1000s of his constituents who do not want a 3rd runway at Heathrow and voted for Heathrow expansion. So he ought to resign now. Certainly many constituents will have good mememories when the next General Election comes round.

It's political parties that's the problem. It seems to go like this - join a political party; hand over whatever brains you mught have to that party; get elected to public office; and be then told by the Whip what your opinions are and how you are going to vote on issues.

It's just no way to run any sort of endeavour.

Botogol said...

you would have taken the whip.

why? because there was a sniff of a chance of defeating the government in a vote, and to oppo MPs that is the ultimate prize. doesn't matter what vote, any vote will do.

Mr said...

My apologies Iain if it seemed I was implying that you were advocating MPs vote with the whip; perhaps I misunderstood what you meant by:

Oh if only life were that simple. We don't live in a word of idealism. We live in a world of 'realpolitik' and those politicians who achieve things in their careers on behalf of their constituents and the country are those who recognise that.

Read to me as "ah yes, principles are a great thing but in order to get things done we must forget them", as a way of understanding and forgiving MPs for their behaviour.

Or did I completely miss your point there?