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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To Jeremy, on Syria

Like most Labour members, I received a request for my views on Syria from Jeremy Corbyn. Below is my response.

Dear Jeremy

Thank you for your email asking for members’ views on military action in Syria.

I do not envy our MPs the choice they face. I think they have a duty to their voters and consciences, not just party members, and I neither expect nor want them to vote solely on the basis of their CLPs’ views. I am not an expert, and I know I may be wrong. I should also say that I strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq: I do not take the prospect of military action lightly.

However, I personally believe that the UK should support the multilateral military effort in Syria as well as Iraq. I would prefer the Parliamentary Labour Party to be whipped to support this, though I recognise that some MPs would feel unable to follow such a whip.

ISIS controls large areas of territory, has committed and continues to commit unspeakable atrocities, has murdered 130 people in Paris, and promises to attempt to kill more people in Britain and elsewhere. When an organisation establishes a form of theocratic totalitarianism over large swathes of territory and the people who live there, wages war on all its neighbours and threatens our and our allies’ citizens, I see a very good moral case to act.

Further, no political settlement can defeat or contain ISIS on its own. ISIS has told us what it wants with glass-like clarity: it wants to create a caliphate on the model of the 600s. For ISIS, accepting a border to the caliphate is literal anathema; permanent peace treaties are literal anathema; failing to wage jihad at least once a year is literal anathema. The Vienna Process does not include them; it never could. At some point, someone will have to force ISIS back by force of arms.

Therefore, to treat diplomatic efforts and military action as incompatible is to present a false choice. An inclusive government in Syria would be better able to tackle ISIS; a weakened ISIS would have less scope to weaken more moderate opposition groups, as it currently does – to the tacit benefit of the Assad regime, reducing the chances of a meaningful political process in Syria.

Of course, air strikes are already being carried out against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. The UK already carries out airstrikes in the latter, at the request of Iraq’s government. I recognise those strikes have produced mixed results so far. Clearly ISIS still exists. But it controls 30% less territory in Iraq than it did, and local forces exist who can advance with air support. The Kurds liberated Sinjar in Iraq; local Sunni forces have also liberated territory. It can be done. We should also ask: how much stronger might ISIS have become without the current air strikes? Presumably opponents believe the current western action in Syria (and Iraq?) should stop: what do they think would happen if it did?

Escalated air strikes will not destroy ISIS on their own, as the Prime Minister has made clear. But reducing ISIS’ capacity to attack others and relieving pressure on the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition are worthwhile objectives. The Government’s estimate of 70,000 moderate forces can never be certain, and depends on the definition of ‘moderate’. But the figure fits much of the most thorough research, and most analysts accept the broader point: there are Sunni, locally-focused forces who might often be conservative Islamists, but oppose ISIS and Assad and are distinct from the al-Nusra Front.

Further, France – one of our nearest neighbours, greatest friends and closest allies – has been attacked and has asked us to join the coalition effort in Syria. The EU’s mutual assistance clause has been invoked, and the Security Council has called on states to take all necessary measures in accordance with international law. France has not invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, no doubt to avoid alienating Moscow: but the wider principle of collective security is undoubtedly engaged. Collective security matters: in Labour, we might call it solidarity. Either way, our alliances form the bedrock of Britain’s security, and we spurn them at our peril.

Of course, I have reservations. This approach relies on a bolstering of moderate forces over time, protected in part by coalition air strikes. Russia takes a very different view of Assad to ours (and is bombing the Syrian opposition); Turkey is an ally, but its views of the Kurds are very different to the rest of NATO. We will need to try and press both to change tack, at least in part. We cannot know how local ground forces or the Vienna Process will fare. Ultimately, a ground force from other Middle Eastern countries might well be required to finish ISIS. But we face uncertainty whatever choice we make. My choice would be for the UK to play its full part in defeating ISIS by political, diplomatic and military means.

Finally, this consultation is no substitute for careful, substantive consideration by MPs of whether or not it is better to intervene in Syria. Given YouGov’s polling of Labour members (which contrasts sharply with its polling of Labour voters) and with Momentum, the successor to your leadership campaign, organising its members to lobby against air strikes at the same time, the majority of respondents will almost certainly oppose military action. But a two-day online consultation, with no way of knowing how representative respondents are and with only two days to comment on an immensely complex topic, is no basis for deciding whether to commit armed forces. I profoundly hope it will not be used in an attempt to intimidate Labour MPs who support the case for acting now.

Best wishes

Douglas Dowell
Leyton and Wanstead CLP