Freedom of Backbenchers is Essential to British Democracy
At this juncture in British political history we contemplate a myriad of issues; Brexit, housing, social care, transport etc., both major parties are vying internally to set their path.
Labour and the Conservatives seem to have developed a voracious pack mentality; deselection or “mandatory re-selection” in Labour and the driving out of “moderates”, vs the Conservative Party placing Brexit front and centre and on the pedestal of ideological identity.
Flashback to Conservative Party Conference and it was no surprise to hear a cry for unity from Party Chairman Brandon Lewis in his Welcome to Conference speech:
“like all families we occasionally have our differences, we won’t always agree, but the shared belief in delivering opportunity … will always bring us together”
Unity is of course key to legislative success; the votes will always be counted. However, in order to create the legislation that will be successful, and to provide the inspirational vision the membership (of any party) craves, it is imperative to hear a chorus of diverse opinion through the ranks of the backbenches.
If we encourage the intellectual independence of thought then we enrich our political system.
Individuals in positions of authority should not surround themselves with yes men. The Government should not constrain MPs so that they become automatons in service to their superiors. In such an outcome, we all lose.
Backbenchers are not technically part of the Government; dissent and individual freedom are privileges they are entitled to. Currently, Conservative backbenchers are members of the Party of governance and they are meant to support the manifesto promises they were elected on.
However, our Whip system constrains MPs. Obligation to the party clashes with an MP’s natural task of representing their community and nation. They are sandwiched between representation vs. party line.
Failure here is catastrophic, not representing constituents due to party pressure may lose them support, and ultimately their seat, in turn weakening the government. Yet too vocal a campaign of dissent, too independent action, may bar a backbencher from a ministerial position, from which they have more scope to aid their constituents and the nation.
Autonomy from the Government, letting each be who they are and believe what they believe, is the answer to political stagnation for three key reasons.
First, to ensure the success of the Conservative Party it must put local communities first. In this regard it is not just advisable, it is wholly necessary to encourage backbenchers to take the concerns of the constituents to heart, and on occasion, this should supersede party loyalty.
As Edmund Burke stated:
“it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents.”
Taken in the strictest sense, Burke’s comment implies an MP should be from their constituency (itself an irony for him), but on a broader basis it drives home the message that country and community should rank first and foremost in an MP’s mind.
Johnny Mercer is an MP who fully embodies this approach. He is vocal on social media and in person on what he sees as the party’s failings while dedicating himself to the service of Plymouth Moor View and the issues close to his constituents.
And it works electorally. Not only did Mercer win his seat from Labour in 2015, but he increased his majority in 2017, despite the party considering his consituency a gonner and allocating resources elsewhere.
Second, MPs must be allowed to follow their convictions, both disagreeing with their party and their constituents. It is a key moral component of an MPs job to act upon what they believe in their mind to be right. To return to 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.”
Third, politics must be grounded in reality. If MPs are encouraged to put their constituencies first, while also doing what they believe to be right, then they will be in the best position to relay reality to the Government. It is much easier to be “in touch” with the people as a backbencher than it is a senior minister. But that can only work if backbench MPs are encouraged to contribute freely to party debate.
If backbenchers were given proper freedom, and the Government was denied blind allegiance then we might be saved from walking into error while also providing opportunity for the humblest of backbenchers to conceive a flagship policy.
Angus was a 2018 Conservative Council Candidate; he is an MA Politics and Contemporary History student at King’s College London