Free votes: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Whip

Free votes are funny things, and much overrated. We always have them for changing parliamentary procedure. We normally have them on things like abortion, equal marriage and euthanasia: essentially, ‘God issues’. Sometimes, we have them for no very obvious reason: fox-hunting was a case in point. And occasionally, we have them to make a point: Ted Heath held one on the ‘in principle’ vote for entering the EEC in 1972, largely to encourage Labour to split as badly as possible on the same issue.

It’s easy to see why they appeal. We complain about spineless lobby fodder, MPs with no independence of thought, rigid party dogma and so on. Allowing a freewheeling debate, with MPs able to vote their conscience, sounds great (though actually, plenty of MPs rebel). You even hear people saying we shouldn’t have whips at all.

But there’s a reason why in practice, MPs usually get free votes when either the party doesn’t care too much, the outcome isn’t in doubt, religion comes into play or party management means leaders think they have no choice. Equal marriage is important to me personally, for instance, but the whole of government policy on tax, benefits and inheritance wouldn’t have fallen apart if it hadn’t gone through. Not everything can be separated out so neatly.

Take the free vote principle too far, and eventually governments can’t govern coherently at all. If the Budget is completely rewritten by a series of splits, you’re not going to get a massively improved document with better policy for all: you’ll probably get a complete mishmash with everyone running round to try and square all the contradictions after Parliament has voted.

If you run a foreign policy on a ‘voting at will’ basis, you’ll also get an incoherent mess. The Government’s decision to allow Cabinet ministers to campaign against each other in the EU referendum and Labour’s free vote on Syria both illustrate the point. EU membership and decisions on military action are fundamental to UK policy. You can’t just say ‘Well, we’re neutral on leaving the EU, but basically our foreign, security and economic policies are the same either way’ or ‘Well, we don’t have a line on military action in Syria, but basically our policy on the Middle East is the same either way’. These decisions are game-changers: if you don’t have a position on them, you don’t have much of a position full stop.

Too many free votes don’t just make governing harder: they blur government accountability. Most people don’t think they vote for their individual MP: they think they vote for their preferred government, or their preferred party, or to send a message of some kind. The link between how we vote in an election and what policies we get depends, ultimately, on ensuring that MPs from a given party usually vote the same way. I don’t want a completely unwhipped Parliament for the same reason I don’t want a House of Commons filled with independents: parties may be unpopular, but they’re also necessary.

This isn’t to say MPs should be partisan lobby-fodder: dissent is important. But you can’t dissent when there’s nothing to dissent from. Most of the time, governments have to set out their stall and make sure their MPs are happy enough with the collective line that they can get it through Parliament. Rebellions serve a purpose, but so do concerns expressed on the floor of the House or in Committee: they allow for an interplay between a government and its MPs.

And if enough of your MPs won’t toe your preferred line, then you usually need to change it. When Labour MPs made it clear to Jeremy Corbyn that they wouldn’t be led down anything other than a pro-European path, that was the principle of parliamentary democracy at work. To his credit, he gave way, and Labour will now campaign to stay in the EU. No leader can survive without the acquiescence of the MPs they’re meant to lead. Tony Blair shouldn’t have had a free vote on Iraq: he should have had a policy with which MPs were more comfortable.

So yes, we need MPs who don’t always toe the party line. Sometimes MPs have to rebel. But let’s not confuse valuing dissent with not taking a position at all.

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