When MPs must choose between conscience and party

There's a narrative that says all our MPs are mere robots, playthings of the whips and party hacks. Even Monday's huge Conservative rebellion hasn't dispelled this idea - because of the far huger vote in favour of the government's position.

But the whole business of whips and rebels set me to pondering an MP's duties. Uber rebel Douglas Carswell dislikes the term "rebel", since he believes he is doing his duty, by voting his conscience, and is not defying legitimate authority. But whatever term one uses, he and the others had to resolve the classic conflict of loyalties which faces any party politician. Whether it is student funding or the NHS Bill in this Parliament, or the Iraq war in the Blair years, or the Maastricht Treaty under Major, MPs eventually face a conflict between what their leadership want them to do, and their personal beliefs - and sometimes the strong beliefs of their constituents.

How should they resolve it? It's easy to say they should simply vote their conscience and to hell with party interest. But almost all MPs are elected on a party ticket on the basis of a party manifesto. In joining a party they have bought into a package of policies. But almost no-one completely agrees with their own manifesto - it would be downright spooky, and perhaps unhealthy, if they did. So in the Commons they have to weigh not only the particular issue confronting them, but the political consequences of their vote, if they break party ranks. Lib Dems, for example, had to consider whether voting against a policy on student finance which reneged on their explicit promise to the voters would bring down the coalition, which they would regard as promoting the greater good. Conservatives had to do the same on the AV Referendum Bill. Nerds like me, who posses copies of The Benn Tapes, can hear an ancient, crackly recording of Tony Benn telling his local Labour activists in Bristol that if he resigned from the '70s Labour government in which he served, because he disagreed with its policies, the result would be a Conservative election victory and Mrs Thatcher in power...

In office all parties make trade-offs on policy issues. And sometimes their MPs can't live with them. Then you get rebellions. But politicians also know that constant rebellion is electoral poison. Perpetual rebels tend to be discounted as "usual suspects" and regarded as self indulgent wreckers by their colleagues. In recent memory John Major's premiership was tied in knots by euro-rebels and his party suffered a landslide defeat which owed much to the miasma of disunity which pervaded its final years. The problem is deeper now. The Maastricht debates took place in an era when backbenchers were pondlife and expected to do what they were told; now the backbenches seethe with rebellion - and once-humble MPs are empowered by a Speaker who is more willing to allow their urgent questions and even emergency debates, not to mention by the debating time available to them through the Backbench Business Committee. And many have come to believe their voters want them to be independent minded, not party robots. Certainly rebels attract a certain respect in the press...

But what happens when it's the voters an MP disagrees with, rather than their party? The classic answer to this question comes from the Tory patriarch Edmund Burke in his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol. He says an MP owes voters not obedience but: "...his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. 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."

And if the voters don't like the result - they can throw the MP out at the next election.

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