A rebellious Parliament, but not a democratic one

The current UK Parliament is one of the most rebellious in history - but this isn't a sign of democratic health.
Andrew Blick
19 November 2009

Parliamentary rebellions, we might be led to believe, are a declining practice that ought to be revived, since they are integral to a strong Parliament. This view needs revising on a number of counts. 

The latest research by Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart of the University of Nottingham was reported in the Telegraph on Tuesday, demonstrating that the pronounced tendency for Labour MPs to rebel that emerged during the Tony Blair premiership has continued under Gordon Brown. During the parliamentary session just ended, Labour MPs rebelled on 74 occasions, a rate of 30 per cent. Moreover, since 2005 a total of six whipped votes have been lost by the government, a post-war record for a party with a majority of more than 60. What should these figures mean to those with an interest in democratic reform?

First, they confirm Cowley's explosion, since he began his groundbreaking work on rebellions, of the simplistic portrayal of parliamentarians as increasingly supine indivdiuals, waiting to be herded through the lobbies, in contrast to their supposedly more independent-minded predecessors of earlier times. 

Second, any view of rebellions as necessarily a sign of a healthy, flourishing parliamentary democarcy requires reexamination. They could just as well be viewed as the symptom of a failure by the government effectively to consult with backbenchers over policy. Were the Parliamentary Labour Party involved more fully in the development of programmes from their early stages, MPs might feel less disposed to take the 'nuclear option' of rebelling when measures were presented for parliamentary approval.

A lesson that can be drawn from Cowley and Stuart's work is that new mechanisms need to be developed to make possible this kind of liaison. Were there in place a proportionate voting system that prevented single party majorities in the Commons, such devices might, out of necessity, already have been created, in order for coalition governments to hold together. 

So will rebelling be less of a feature of a possible Conservative government under David Cameron? I would not count on it. Some would argue that the Conservative Party has a greater tradition of deference that will make its MPs more loyal. But the Conservatives have become increasingly committed to ideological principles over recent decades and they may be willing to ignore the whips in pursuit of them. Particularly over an issue that will be crucial to a prospective Cameron premiership - the European Union.

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