The weekend debate: When should an MP rebel against their party?

Here’s your starter for ten in our weekend slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate…

In the Australian system even a single rebellion against your party can mean the whip is withdrawn but in the UK we’re much more used to MPs ‘crossing the floor’ and voting against their party.

In fact there’s been a fair amount of coverage on Lib Dem Voice of Mark Pack’s research on the number of backbench Lib Dem MPs who have rebelled against the government since the last election.

One could argue that MPs have a duty to vote with the party that helped get them elected and ultimately the party that people voted for. Or in the current situation of a coalition perhaps MPs should seek to vote with the spirit of their party’s manifesto? But if all MPs did that, how would coalition work?

Even very recently the party’s activists have been lobbying our Lords to enact a policy that wasn’t decided until after the election by our conference. Should this bind our parliamentarians, in either house, since it wasn’t necessarily what people voted on?

There is also of course the famous quote from 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.

What do you think? When should an MP or peer rebel against their party? And what principles should they set their judgement to rebel or not against?


*Hat tip to Stephen Tall for the idea for this debate.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Grammar Police 4th Feb '12 - 9:42am

    There’s a huge amount for them to consider, especially in coalition: their consciences, party policy (and the “main thrust of party policy”), liberal principles, their constituents, argument in parliament, political “positioning”, maintaining the coalition and the compromises, wins and losses within it, and the internal compromises of any Bill.

  • When asked unnecessarily to vote against an electoral pledge?

  • Personally, I’d definitely have voted against the government on tuition fees (although as doing so supported both party policy and the platform I’d have been elected on I don’t count that as rebelling) and the welfare reforms last week too (when Ming Campbell and Paddy Ashdown are seen as ‘rebels’ you know something’s gone badly wrong.)

    The problem all elected people have is this definition of who we are – are we elected to represent the area, or are we elected as delegates to vote on things as we see them? I had this conundrum a couple of years ago, when I supported the closure of a road in my ward which the local Community Council opposed. I subscribe to the “delegates” viewpoint – you’re never going to be able to satisfy everybody in the ward, and you really just have to accept that and move on.

    One thing I have noticed is that, since deciding not to stand again in May, I’ve been much more able to make my own mind up about things and look wider than just the local voters, because I don’t have to worry about trying to get re-elected (and, frankly, it’s not a seat we’re likely to hold at the moment anyway.) There’s discussion about a housing development, which some aren’t too happy about, but which will deliver a new school and new facilities to my ward – if I was seeking re-election, I’d be less inclined to support it and more inclined to oppose, but now I can make my own mind up and say what I think.

  • “If the alternative is to sit on the sidelines whilst Labour or the Conservatives go ahead and make a whole bunch of unpleasant cuts anyway”
    I think that’s a bit of a straw man of an alternative. We don’t know that either Labour or the Conservatives, on their own, would make *worse* cuts to disability benefits, and I suspect they wouldn’t. The Conservative leadership has even been heard to say that they think they can go further with us there than they would do on their own.

  • That’s not to say for a minute that we should be on the sidelines – I think we have to be in government, but better-organised.

  • John Carlisle 4th Feb '12 - 2:53pm

    When you just know the NHS bill will not work. You cannot make a wrong thing righter, so do it now.

  • Anytime their conscience dictates that they should?

    i’d abolish whipping as it currently stands personally.

  • Tony Greaves 4th Feb '12 - 9:43pm

    As a general case, representatives have a duty to represent their party, their constituents and their own beliefs. How they reconcile those things if they are different is a function of how successful their party is in accommodating discussion and dissent. It’s not always easy in a council group but much harder in the Commons and similar places. Different representatives will often come to different answers and there is a need for tolerance by everyone else.

    Peers have “only” two of those things to worry about.

    But Coalition complicates the matter when there is a difference between government policy (negotiated and agreed by the party leadership/systems) and party policy.

    In general, the more discussion that can happen before votes take place the better, and as openly as possible. Given the pressure of the parliamentary timetable that is not always easy. It woul dhelp if the processes of decision-making in the coalition were better known and understood even among parliamentarians.

    Tony Greaves

  • “In coalition, we horse trade with them, they horse trade with us, and given that there are more than four of them in the Commons for every one of ours, you should expect them to win more often.”

    More than five of them, in fact. So the logic, apparently, is that we end up with a government that is 85% Conservative, with policies to match. If the parliamentary arithmetic had been just a bit different, we might have ended up with a government that was 80% Labour, with policies to match – depending on which way the Lib Dems had decided to jump after the election was over.

    Maybe the best thing that will ulitmately come out of all this is that we revert to a two-party system in which voters are offered a straight choice between two alternatives, and the outcome is decided by the electorate instead of at the whim of a minority party?

  • Jonathan Crewdson 5th Feb '12 - 12:01pm

    In a truly democratic society a public representative speaks and votes according to the majority view of his or her constituents. As well as introducing a proper right to recall (not the watered down version that gives Parliamentary committees the final say) we also need a right to mandate our MPs and they should face stiff penalties for non-compliance.

    The party label simply gives an idea of what a candidate stands for but no voter agrees with every single policy in their manifesto and there will always be matters not covered by the manifesto that come up.

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