MPs and political parties

One of the things that has regularly riled my regular social media contacts is the ‘whipping’ system within Parliament. People have been genuinely distressed to see images of parliamentary debates on issues that are really important to them and to thousands of other people taking place in a sparsely-filled chamber. Why is this so?

As my local Member of Parliament Dr Julian Huppert MP (Lib Dem) said at a Cambridge Sceptics in the Pub meeting, a debate in Parliament is not the same as a debate that you may have say at a university debating society. In a debating society debate, you listen to points made from people favouring a motion, and people opposing the motion, and then all those present vote to decide who has won.

Parliamentary debates work very differently. I saw this first hand from a ringside seat during my civil service days, when watching the full second reading of a piece of legislation I was supporting ministers on being debated in Parliament. My ringside seat That debate lasted the best part of seven hours – and my job was to concentrate throughout that entire time, listening out for any questions that were put by MPs to ministers on my policy area. (My three hour exams at university were nothing compared to the intensity of that experience). For part of that debate I was sat on the civil servants’ bench which is to the right-hand-side of the Speaker’s chair.

It was already a foregone conclusion that the Government was going to ‘win’ that debate – a three-line-whip and a substantial majority in Parliament ensured that. What struck me at the time was my reaction to seeing most of the debate (on a big screen in one of the committee rooms) being sparsely attended, then watching the chamber fill up before my eyes with people who were household names on the telly. I saw Ed Balls and I was like “He looks a lot smaller than he does on the telly!” (How big’s your telly?!?!) But it was the feeling of seeing the chamber fill up with all of these people who had not been in the chamber for the debate filling the chamber to cast their vote which made me feel uneasy.

Some MPs may have done their bedtime reading, made themselves aware of both sides of the argument and said to themselves that there was no point in them attending because they knew which way they were going to vote anyway. Other MPs may have had other commitments in Parliament that day – for example a select committee hearing. (Remember that a third of all MPs serve on select committees and another sixth of MPs are members of the Government so have to spend much of the day doing ministerial work rather than sitting in the Commons listening to debates – unless it is their department having to answer questions).

This means that when there is a debate on a substantive legislative issue – such as a second reading or third reading/report stages, or the approval of a statutory instrument (such as the one that brought in the £9,000 tuition fees by the Coalition under primary legislation brought in by Labour), most points made by those who sit through the whole debate are quite often done so to raise awareness of an issue, or to put something on public record.

To be fair to those MPs that do this, my experience is that ministers on the whole direct their civil servants to draft formal and substantive responses to points made by MPs during debates where such points are on the substantive issue and are not about party-political handbagging. (Civil servants have to stand back from the party-political debates). That’s one of the reason why I tend to rate those MPs who make substantive non-party-political points more highly than those that spend their time in the chamber either asking toady questions (“Does the minister agree with me that the Government’s policies are great and would he like to elaborate as to why?”) or ones that can easily be slapped down (“When is the minister going to resign over this latest shambles?”). Civil servants (whose salaries are ultimately paid for by tax payers) spend a lot of time preparing and briefing ministers on the substantive non-party-political points of debates and questioning sessions due to take place. The least the MPs can do is to ensure that ministers have to make use of the information they have taken on board during those briefing sessions.

Having said all of the above, there is a very good reason why MPs need guidance from their party machinery on which way to vote. That simple reason being that MPs cannot be experts on everything that happens in the world. Life is too complicated for that.

Political parties in principle are made up of groups of people who broadly share similar views and opinions in the grand scheme of things. Therefore I think it is reasonable for an MP to trust the advice of people who share those general principles who have expertise in those areas the MP does not, to advise that MP on which way to vote. Part of the deal with that for me is that the MP concerned has an area of expertise that he or she can bring to enrich Parliament and public life. MPs with a specific expertise that they can bring to bear on issues they are familiar with are ones that are worth listening to – especially when it means that they drop the party-political point scoring.

What seems to have happened in recent years is that party whips seem to have gained too much control over MPs in recent years, leading to tame and compliant MPs not giving the governments of the day nearly enough scrutiny and admonishment that in a number of cases they strongly deserve. This is one of the reasons why I like select committees – they are different beasts altogether and more often than not these days (in part due to the election by secret ballot the chairs of select committee). Select committees take their roles of scrutinising the executive very seriously. Even during the previous administration there were a number of very damning select committee reports issued by select committees with large majorities of MPs from the party in power.

The dead hand of the whips can severely impact on the level of scrutiny that ministers have to face. You can spot evidence of whips at work on the order paper of any departmental question time session. You see it when different MPs all seem to have asked the same question because they’ve all been told by the whips to submit questions to the ‘ballot’ only to find that more than one of them has been drawn. The introduction of ‘topical questions’ has given MPs more flexibility in the time allocated following the pre-published questions, but and MP wanting a future ministerial career has to keep the whips happy.

There will inevitably be a tension between the desire – in particular from the non-party-political general public – to see MPs being more outspoken and defying the whips, and party leaderships wanting their MPs to be extensions and advocates of them. In the 1980s and early 1990s, political “indiscipline” caused huge problems for all the main political parties. Since then, I can’t help but feel that the main political parties went too far the other way. To what extent is the pendulum swinging back?


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