How to break the government’s control of parliament
The Cardinal who heads the Roman Catholic church in Scotland has strongly attacked a government Bill shortly to come before the house of commons and demanded that MPs be given a 'free vote' on it. According to the BBC's report, —
The leader of the Catholic church in Scotland has urged Gordon Brown to rethink "monstrous" plans to allow hybrid human-animal embryos. Cardinal Keith O'Brien will use his Easter Sunday sermon to launch a scathing attack on the government's controversial proposals. He will also call on the prime minister to allow Labour MPs a free vote on the issue at Westminster. Mr Brown has said the bill would improve research into many illnesses. Supporters of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill believe hybrid embryos could lead to cures for diseases including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.
Cardinal O'Brien has already come under attack for allegedly trying to tell MPs how they should vote. He has reportedly replied, with some justice, that all he has done is express a view on the Bill and urge that MPs should be allowed to vote on it according to their consciences. Labour MPs, including several ministers, who are also Roman Catholics will be in a difficult position if their party leaders in the House insist on putting out three-line whips on this Bill (the Tories and the LibDems have apparently already decided to 'grant' their members a free vote). If Catholic Labour ministers defy the whip and vote against the provisions of the Bill to which the Cardinal has taken such strong objection, they may well have to resign their ministerial posts; if they obey the whip and vote for the measure, they will presumably find themselves 'disciplined' by their own church, perhaps even — who knows? — excommunicated from it. Not a happy situation to be in.
We may question whether the Cardinal is really asking Catholic Labour MPs to vote, or to be allowed to vote, according to their consciences: presumably he is implicitly, although not in so many words, telling them to vote according to the instructions of the Roman Catholic church, whether or not their consciences happen to agree with those instructions. And since no-one is forced to belong to or to conform to the requirements of the Roman Catholic church (in this country, anyway), that's surely fair enough. If you join the club, or even if you're born a member, you observe its rules. If you don't like them, you can always leave. And if you remain a member but persistently flout the rules, you get thrown out. Nothing wrong with that.
The position of the party whips, however, is rather different. They too instruct their fellow-MPs how to vote, with a corresponding threat of excommunication from their party if they disobey. But in the case of the MPs, excommunication — withdrawal of the party whip — is likely to lead to the disobedient MP losing his party's endorsement at the next election, which means another candidate for the party being selected for his or her seat. In most cases, this means that the erring MP will lose the seat, unless he has managed to build up a significant personal following of voters willing to continue to vote for him against the official candidate of the party — and even in the rare cases where this has happened, it's even more rare for the rebel to hold the seat as an independent, or candidate of a different party, for more than one election. Thus the instructions of the party whips are effectively backed up by the threat that continued disobedience will ultimately mean the end of the rebel's political career. This is the political equivalent of blackmail: demanding not money but parliamentary obedience with menaces.
Which prompts the question: why is this not a contempt of parliament and a gross breach of parliamentary privilege? How dare the party bosses decide in their infinite wisdom and benevolence whether or not to 'allow' hundreds of elected members of parliament to vote on every measure according to their own judgement and conscience? There's certainly a case in a parliamentary democracy for party loyalty and even party discipline: some degree of party unity and general adherence to the core values and policies of each major party are essential if government is to function in an orderly way, and if the voter can have reasonable confidence that he is voting for (or against) a reasonably coherent body of political actions and measures likely to be backed by each party's representatives in parliament. But consider the position in the United States: party discipline is far looser, partly because the party machine in each state is much more independent of the party machine at the centre than is the case in Britain, but also because the failure of the executive (the president and cabinet) to get its legislation through the Congress because of rebellions on the part of the relevant party's Senators or Congressmen can't lead to the collapse of the government, as it can in Britain. Consequently the president and the party leaderships are forced to exercise persuasion in order to get their way in Congress: they can't simply issue instructions to the members of their party and assume that 95 per cent of the flock will automatically obey, whatever they might think privately.
More than anything else, it's the power of the whips over their MPs in Britain that has led to the collapse of the power of parliament effectively to hold the government to account, to head off reckless and ill-judged action by a headstrong executive even if a substantial body of opinion in parliament individually has doubts about it, and ultimately to dismiss a ministry and insist on the substitution of another. On top of this seizure by government of control over parliament, we have the effective control of the whole government by the prime minister, who can — and often does — dismiss any minister at will and whose immense power of patronage makes him almost wholly invulnerable, at least until he — or she! — so abuses this personal power that a critical mass of hostility builds up within the Cabinet sufficient to force an over-authoritarian prime minister from office. But this is a rare and politically cataclysmic event; and anyway the ultimate safeguard is in the hands of ministers (if they are brave and conspiratorial enough to use it), not their back-bench MPs. It's true that back-benchers can very occasionally mount a rebellion big enough to defeat a government, but almost never on a vote of confidence, nor on an issue of such momentous importance that defeat on it would force the government to resign.
How then to restore parliament's independence of government, and its power to hold government to account?
The first thing might be to establish the principle that defeat in the house of commons never obliges a government to resign, however important the issue, provided that parliament continues to vote supply to enable the business of government to be carried on. Back-bench MPs would no longer be vulnerable to the argument that if a rebellion leads to a government defeat, the government will be forced to resign and call fresh elections at which the rebels' seats might be at risk and their party thrown out of office.
Secondly, a way needs to be found to break the power of party headquarters at Westminster to dictate to constituency parties which candidates they may or may not adopt. All three of the serious (i.e. potentially governing) parties would need to force this fundamental change on their national leaders through the internal procedures available in each party's rule book, mainly no doubt concluding at the party's annual conference.
Thirdly, there needs to be an amendment to Erskine May, the parliamentary rule-book, to the effect that any member of parliament who seeks to influence the vote of another member by threatening him, directly or indirectly, with any form of action against him, will be held to be in contempt of parliament and will suffer the penalties laid down for such contempt.
As a tailpiece, I foresee that some readers of this will be tempted to argue that the objectives I propose could most easily be achieved by substituting proportional representation (PR) for First Past the Post as the system for elections to the house of commons, since this would lead to a situation in which no single party would ever have an overall majority in the house of commons. Thus all decisions would have to be made by a combination of members of different parties who would not be subject to coercion but would need to be persuaded on the merits of each individual issue. My own view, expressed at no doubt tedious length in several earlier posts and comments in this blog, is that any such benefits from PR would be more than outweighed by its negative consequences, including especially the abolition of the power of the electorate to choose a government with a pre-defined set of policies, and the substitution of the power of a group of politicians to choose a government and a set of government policies after the election in a process of bargaining that would conclude with a government for which not a single voter had voted, and a set of policies which had not even been devised when the electorate went to the polls. I know that many sensible and liberal-minded people strongly disagree about this: but I hope that those who comment here will resist the temptation to re-start a debate on PR, concentrating instead on other ways to restore the authority of parliament and to break the power over our elected MPs of the prime minister, ministers and above all the whips.