Representative Delegates? How we should view the role of Liberal Democrat MPs

After furious debate from all parties on both sides of the floor, the House of Commons has voted in favour of Britain expanding its current military operations to cover both Iraq and Syria. To the shock of many within the Liberal Democrat party this week, Tim Farron announced that the parliamentary party will be backing the government’s proposal, stating that:

It is in my judgement that, on balance, the five tests I set out have been met as best they can at this moment, and I will therefore be voting in favour of extending the operations to allow airstrikes on ISIL in Syria.

The implications of this for the party and for the country will be debated over the coming weeks, months, or potentially years, to come. However, this article is not about the legal, moral, political or philosophical reasons to support/condemn this decision. This article is about the nature of the decision itself.

One thing that has become clear since the announcement of the party’s change in stance over the issue above, and the way such news was greeted, was how party members viewed the role of the Liberal Democrat’s remaining MPs. On both Twitter and Facebook there have been angry calls against and personal pleas to individual MPs to not back the proposal, stating how the vast majority of the party do not back military action in its current form. While it’s understood that both Twitter and Facebook are accumulative echo-chambers it raises an important question: Should Liberal Democrat MPs be seen as parliamentary representatives or as delegates for the wider Liberal Democrat membership?

In May the party lurched dramatically overnight from an established parliamentary entity of over 50 MPs with an experienced leadership to a handful of parliamentary representatives. This means that the Liberal Democrat’s parliamentary party can no longer function in the same way that the Conservatives and Labour parties do. The size and hierarchical structure of these two organisations, based on the carrot of promotion to [shadow] ministerial position and the stick of enforcing the whip no longer make sense to a group of (what are ultimately) electoral survivors. However the size of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party means it cannot act purely mouth-piece for the party membership either in the way that smaller parliamentary parties do (such as the Green Party and UKIP) and effectively act as glorified lobbyists.

Ultimately the question is about what sort of parliamentary party we want the Liberal Democrats to be. I would rather the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons act like a parliamentary party and not like a pressure group and, while that means I may not like every decision they will make, it means I will support that it’s their decision to make and not mine.

* Alex Hegenbarth is the Lib Dem PPC for the Tewkesbury constituency

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25 Comments

  • Paul Griffiths 3rd Dec '15 - 10:51am

    Edmund Burke said it better, in 1774.

  • paul barker 3rd Dec '15 - 10:55am

    The top things I would look for in a potential MP are Liberal values & an ability to think for themselves. All our remaining MPs demonstrated both those qualities last night.

  • Victoria Charleston 3rd Dec '15 - 10:55am

    I agree with you Alex, we also have to remember that our MPs have a commitment to their constituents and must take into account those views.

    I think we ask an awful lot of eight people to express the, often now frustrated views of thousands.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Dec '15 - 11:10am

    More Liberal Democrat MPs please. In 1970 there were six.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Dec '15 - 11:12am

    Alex, minor correction – TIm Farron did not announce that the party would be backing the motion, he announced that he would be backing the motion and asking his colleagues to, but there was not a lot of nonsense about ‘three line whips’ etc. In a group of 8 MPs, it’d be suicide for a start.

    I am comfortable with the leader saying, ‘I think this, will you join me?’ much more than I would be if it was ‘We shall do this; I have decided’.

    I am not ecstatic that the party voted the way it did, but not feeling ‘betrayed’ either. There was a liberal case for action; I think it is still yet a flawed one, but it was there. This is not a betrayal of principle, though the 5-tests approach may not in hindsight have been helpful.

    Are Plaid Cymru voters ecstatic that all their MPs voted for the motion? Are Conservative constituents disquieted by those Tories who rebelled against the government? We are not the only party with this issue; not now, not in the past and not in the future. In fact, the party’s ongoing proposal of STV over list-based systems of proprtional representation shows that it sees MPs as individuals elected by their constituents, not as group-delegate ‘lobby fodder’ with a party mandate only.

    There is still, as Eddie Sammon has said elsewhere on this site (not often I agree with you, Eddie), the opportunity to hold the government to account on how this action is carried out, on refugees, and robust aciton regarding the financing of Daesh.

    The MPs have discussed together, consulted the party (maybe not perfectly, but I am not able to judge), considered the issues and differed from one another on conscience. I am more-or-less happy with that. To be honest, if I had been an MP, I would have been tempted to abstain (this may have made me a laughing stock, I guess).

  • Hi Matt, thanks for the correction and well pointed out

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Dec '15 - 11:47am

    And now to correct myself — the BBC website is saying Plaid cymru’s MPs voted for the motion; the Guardian says all 3 voted against. In retrospect I believe the Guardian rather more.

  • Conor McGovern 3rd Dec '15 - 11:49am

    Although I wish Tim hadn’t come out in favour of airstrikes given the rush to war and lack of evidence on many fronts, I’m proud of our 8 MPs for acting in an independent-minded way, and for Tim in not punishing Norman Lamb and Mark Williams for rebelling. With such a small number of MPs it’s probably a good thing to work on the basis of free votes.

  • Peter Davies 3rd Dec '15 - 12:27pm

    Our current position makes it pretty obvious that our MPs represent their electorates rather than the party. An enormous amount of effort went into producing a diverse array of candidates in target seats. We got a bunch of white males.

  • Voting in favour was bad enough;, let alone whipping in favour.

    But I am not sure the question is the right one. With just eight MPs, what are our votes in the Commons actually for? They will, almost always, be irrelevant to the outcome, and I hope that our MPs are not sitting there remembering our time in government and pretending they are somehow making decisions on behalf of the country. The principal purpose of the positions a small minority party takes should be to identify, stick to and build a constituency of support around a few core principles, endeavour to set out a distinctive stall, and give the wider party something to campaign on.

  • David Allen 3rd Dec '15 - 12:48pm

    The key question is whether it should have been a free vote or a whipped vote. At least Tim got that one right.

  • The MPs should act in the national interest not a narrow party interest expressed by a group of us, who are unrepresentative of the public at large.

  • I think most correspondents are missing the point. The issue is not whether the MPs should represent the members, but whether they should do as they promised. The MPs reached a reasoned sensible position based upon 5 tests. These were clearly not met. It made no sense to vote against our own position. Thankfully 2 of our MPs understood this.

  • @David Allen “The key question is whether it should have been a free vote or a whipped vote. At least Tim got that one right.”

    Do we take it you think that Tim is not the messiah, but a very naughty boy?

  • Alex raises an important point about decision making in the party. It’s something we need to think about – not just in this context but more widely as part of the governance and policy-making reviews. I think we’ve historically got it badly wrong which explains in large part why we are so perennially unsuccessful at getting votes.

    The UK is an explicitly representative democracy. MPs are the voters’ representatives and we expect them to spend time and energy mugging up on issues on our behalf and then acting accordingly. As Alex says, MP’s are not merely delegates mandated by some pressure group to vote a particular way.

    However, formally-speaking the Lib Dems are organised as if MPs were just mandated delegates since, as the policy-making consultation paper points out, it’s Conference that officially makes policy. This creates all sorts of difficulties – for example when a particular issue has not been discussed or when circumstances have changed and the ‘official’ policy is outdated or when things happen (the Syria debate being a good example) on a timescale that doesn’t dovetail with Conference. The result is that it’s often unclear who is formally responsible for making policy, for changing it, for filling in additional detail etc. It’s also unclear who is responsible for answering to the membership subsequently.

    In practice, spokespeople have to make some policy on the hoof so you could probably make a good case that much of the party’s policy is, strictly speaking, ultra vires at any moment in time.

    Worse, policy-making is driven by a slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic system much of which is effectively ‘outsourced’ to obscure working parties that are unaccountable to the membership in any meaningful way. Also, any challenges to policy must be suppressed because debating them implies revisiting the work of at least one committee, possibly several. The result is a positively soviet sclerosis in practice though not intention.

    The solution is to make spokespeople formally responsible for developing policy within their brief and then for winning Conference’s approval for it with the leader leading and coordinating the process (c.f. the conductor of an orchestra). Policy-making would soon become much sharper and we might even start winning Parliamentary elections!

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Dec '15 - 5:37pm

    Alan Johnson’s speech is a key moment. As a former Home Secretary he will have had security beiefings. As a former postman he has trade union links which are important in the Labour Party. As Labour’s lead campaigner on the EU referendum we will be seeing a lot of him, although he will not be part of a cross-party group. There are lessons from the Scottish referendum as they affected Gordon Brown and as they affected Alex Salmond. Thhe UK is only playing a small part in the 60 nation coalition in the war against Daesh, but the EU referendum really is about the UK’s national interest.
    France is a friend in need. “Nous sommes solidaire”. France has been our ally for more than 100 years. Although the UK controls its own sea and air borders we co-operate with european democracies on police matters and share the channel tunnel with France. Even euro-sceptics such as Nigel Lawson choose to make their homes in France.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Dec '15 - 7:15pm

    Thanks Matt (Bristol), yes, many experienced people weren’t against it for no reasons – Cameron needs to be made sure he gets it right.

  • Katharine Pindar 3rd Dec '15 - 7:28pm

    Gordon, you develop important issues on our representative democracy, and how our Party democracy works and should work. I say, long live Conference as our main policy-making body, with the Federal Executive, committees and working groups able to help our MPs and MEP with the interim stances as issues arise. I disagree entirely with your paragraph about the ‘slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic system’ and slighting references to ‘obscure’ working parties unaccountable to the membership. It’s entirely likely that such working parties will have or can call on experts to help their deliberations. The Open University, for which I used to work, has always produced excellent materials from course teams, not individuals. I deplore the idea of giving ‘formal responsibility’ to spokespersons.

  • Graham Evans 3rd Dec '15 - 10:39pm

    While MPs like to think of themselves as representatives of their constituents, in reality the overwhelming majority are there because of the party label under which they fight. While a particularly “good” constituency MPs might garner a couple of thousand votes on a personal basis – perhaps rather more in the case of LD MPs – with few exceptions – Douglas Carswell comes to mind – most MPs would be lucky to save their deposit without the party label. In principle therefore MPs ought to vote in line with the policies of their party, and of course in practice this is what the overwhelming majority of MPs do when their party is on government, though rather less so when in opposition. So the key issue is how to determine party policy, and herein lies the difficulty. Under our quasi presidential system, the reality is that the Prime Minister determines the policies of the Government, albeit taking into account the feelings of his/her MPs, the wider party membership, and what those who usually vote for the party will stomach. In opposition the leader of the principle opposition party is less able to determine party policy unilaterally and has to negotiate with a number of interest groups. Normally however the leader can rely upon allies within all the various power groupings in order to get his/her way. The problem for the Labour Party at the moment is that two key power groupings, the members and the MPs, are strongly polarised and have fundamentally different views on what party policy should be. The dilemma is unlikely to be resolved this side of 2020, and my gut feeling is that unless the so-called moderates spend less time undermining their leader and more time actually recruiting members who share their views then it will be the MPs who come off worse in any confrontation.

  • Graham Evans 3rd Dec '15 - 10:39pm

    The problem for Liberal Democrats, whether we have 8 MPs or 50, is that our MPs are unlikely to represent a cross section of opinion in the Party. Even the councillor base is too narrow and geographically concentrated. And as for Conference, the Federal Executive, and all the other party bureaucracies, cannot anyone hand on heart claim that these are representative of the membership, let alone LD voters? So, to come back to the original question, my answer is that LD MPs should use their own judgement to decide most national policy issue, at least in terms of legislation or quasi-legislation, but if they , and in particular the leader, embark on consultation with the membership they should be open and honest and explain the direction from which they are coming, rather than give the impression that they are genuinely neutral in terms of the outcome.

  • Thank you for the comments everyone. While I used the Syria vote as an example to demonstrate my point, as specified the article is not about the bite itself. Ultimately the article is about: Do (or should) we see ourselves as a small Big party or as a big Small party?

  • Katharine Pindar – You argue for maintaining the status quo but that has failed; that’s not just my opinion but that of real voters in real elections. ‘One more heave’ is not a viable plan at this point; we need to find and fix the flaws that made the status quo fail.

    The problem might be either (a) incompetent people running the party, or (b) organisational structures that subtract from their efforts rather than adding value. I don’t think it’s (a) – no doubt a few individuals didn’t work out but there have been enough over the years that this can’t be the source of the problem. Alternative (b) however is highly likely. It’s common cause that HQ organisation is byzantine – and that never works in any circumstance.

    As for the policy working parties I stand by my charge that they are ‘obscure’. How many party members (or even local party chairs come to that) could, without first looking it up, name even one current working party? How often do they publish articles on LDV about their work? Can you point me to a few recent examples? I submit they have become creatures of the Westminster bubble but – to be absolutely clear – this is not the fault of their hardworking members – it’s the way the system is set up. Also, they don’t effectively support our MPs. For instance most just voted to put our servicemen into harm’s way over Syria and yet (please correct me if I’m wrong) there isn’t a working party covering the developing situation there. So where so did they get the necessary background? From the Tory press?

    So, what I propose is that our official spokespeople should also be ex officio chairs of one or more standing working parties covering their portfolio be it education, energy etc. That would mean more working parties with the spokespeople as the obvious and visible point of contact. It would also mean better integration of policy-making with practical politics.

    Conference would remain the main policy-making body but with policy motions coming primarily from spokespeople or their nominees. It would be a case of the spokesperson PROPOSES but Conference DISPOSES.

    Incidentally, I doubt that ANY successful local party runs a system where elected councillors follow policies set by a byzantine internal process. I guess they ALL make their own decisions at the nexus of their political instincts (both W.R.T. the voters as a whole and party members specifically), advice from officers and external experts.

  • Margaret Gray 4th Dec '15 - 4:10pm

    Has anyone mentioned that 2 LD MPs voted against air strikes – Mark Williams and Norman Lamb, good for them, so hardly a party line. I believe MPs are representatives, and should vote intelligently according to conscience.

  • Simon Banks 4th Dec '15 - 5:08pm

    I don’t think MPs should be bound to vote the way the majority of party members want. After all, consider a situation in which Conference properly passes a policy, it subsequently emerges that a majority of party members don’t support this policy, but in the meantime MPs have been promoting it. Do they promptly stop? Also what about a situation in which party members think one thing, but the majority of voters in the MP’s consituency take a very different view.

    Syria is a different case because there is no established party policy, nor could there be unless we’d just had our Conference and passed an emergency motion. I do think we generally expect our MPs, individually and as a group, to think for themselves and that we should not bind them. We do, though, expect them to listen. The problem with the Syrian bombing issue was that there wasn’t time for the best kind of consultation and rushed judgements may be wrong. For example, up until a couple of days ago I supported us joining in the bombing but now think that though specific evidence could sway me, I’m opposed.

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