Is keeping the way MPs vote secret really the way to reform Parliament?

There’s an intriguing detail in today’s widely welcomed proposals for reforming how the House of Commons works. In a bid to weaken the power of the whips and to strengthen that of backbenchers of all parties, the House of Commons Reform Committee has recommended that MPs vote in secret for a new body that will control some of the business in the House.

Secret voting would reduce the influence of the whips certainly, but it would also reduce accountability to the public. It’s not hard to imagine a controversial decision by this new body – or a controversial election to it – resulting in a wave of anger about secret votes by MPs.

Using secrecy to protect the independence of Parliamentarians was an approach taken in post-1945 Italy, where for several decades the details of Parliamentary voting were kept secret. This was in reaction to the strong arm tactics that had been previously used by fascists in order to get Parliamentarians to toe the line.

Added to John Bercow’s recent Speaker election being the first to be done by secret ballot, it is at best a weird irony that the clamour for reform and transparency is leading Parliament in part down the road of secrecy. At worst it is storing up another storm of criticism when the secret processes produced an unpopular result.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliament.
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10 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 25th Nov '09 - 2:52am

    Can we find some way that the constituents know how they voted but the whips don’t? I’m thinking of something along the lines of locking the whips in a cellar…

    More seriously, I would like to see things changed so that the whips have far less power to control how MPs vote. If their constituents are clear in their desire/approval for a certain vote, then that’s how the MP should vote, and the whips should not be able to punish them for it.

  • Andrew Tennant 25th Nov '09 - 8:35am

    Why not just abolish the whip? Free MPs up from party control? A party label and manifesto brings like minded people together, but neither should be restrictive.

    Let’s be extreme for a moment – set a restriction on MPs so they can only vote on an issue if they were present for a minimum percentage of the summary debate; let reasoned argument and personal logic decide the outcome of a vote rather than ‘because I said so’. If MPs couldn’t be bothered to contribute and have their say, inform the voters, and I’m sure they’d be having theirs, at the election, in the ballot box.

  • Malcolm Todd 25th Nov '09 - 8:40am

    The trouble is, whips’ power is largely informal as I understand it: they punish by leaving you out of the goodies; and of course you won’t get into a government job (or a Committee chair, for the committed parliamentarian) if you’re a troublemaker. Best and most radical solution would be a complete separation of executive and legislature – so that there is no payroll vote, and being an MP is not seen as primarily a qualification for a ministerial post; but even without such an improbably revolutionary step, a drastic reduction in the number of ministerial posts permitted in the Commons, and openly elected Committee membership and chairs, with substantial statutory powers for Select Committees, would help to build up the attractiveness of an independent parliamentary career.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Nov '09 - 10:22am

    Andrew, what do you mean “abolish the whip”? If MPs chose to obey any such recommendations, that’s up to them. If people chose to elect MPs who chose to obey such recommendations, that’s up to them. There’s no legal compulsion, so how can you abolish it?

    Most people, if asked, would say “yes” in response to the question “Should MPs vote as they think best or as their party tells them”. But then if they were asked “Do you prefer a political party which is united to one where its MPs are always arguing with each other and voting in different ways?” they would also respond “yes”. It’s the same as asking “Do you want tax cuts?” and “Do you want better and more extensive public services?”. They will respond “yes” to each, without necessarily seeing there is something of a balance between the two.

    The votes in the ballot box tend to show what they really think, though politics being what it is people like to vote for parties which promises mutually contradictory things and then moan about politicians always promising what they can’t deliver.

    I would like our party to show a grown-up attitude and in the way it presents itself move people away from this way of thinking. I regret, after 30 years of membership and trying to push this, I see little success. We too have campaigns run by marketing men who push this childish attitude to politics because they think of it a salesmen’s job, rather than an adult attitude to politics in which we work with the electors as colleagues.

  • mario nocita 10th Oct '17 - 7:26pm

    One of the many reasons why Italy has unstable governments is due to the fact that they have the secret vote in their parliament.

  • charles mcallister 4th Sep '19 - 7:47pm

    I propose we should change the voting system in the commons to secret ballot to stop MP’S been intimidated by the whips

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