Parliament and government, electorate and elected: time for reform

By Jill Segger
June 19, 2019

The prospect of another week of wannabe Conservative leaders setting out their wares for the electors of the parliamentary party, the party in the country and the wider electorate, does not lift the heart.

However, it does throw into relief the need to consider the relationship – or perhaps its lack – between disparate audiences and of the tripartite responsibilities of an MP: to their constituents, to parliament and to their party – and how they navigate between them.

The EU referendum has blurred understanding of the role of an MP. A plebiscite took place on 23 June 2016, not an election, and now the duty of men and women elected under a specific set of obligations is seen as being to ‘deliver the people’s will’ on a single issue within a very different framework. This takes no account of leave MPs in predominantly remain constituencies or vice versa. Nor does it advance understanding of how those MPs may best respond to hostility and hurt far beyond their own constituencies or of the moral values required to do this. It poses the dilemma of what an MP should do if what they genuinely believe to be in their constituents’ best interests conflicts with the Brexit stance within an area. It is also the point at which Edmund Burke’s view of an elected representative, given in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol, – which is not presently trending – is worth some consideration: “To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience, – these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.”

It is not at present popular to see an MP as being other than a delegate, and this restricted field of vision has played a significant part in the intemperate manner in which much of the debate around Brexit is being conducted. In this atmosphere of increased hostility, the responsibility to parliament has dropped down many MPs’ list of priorities as they look anxiously at reselection processes, the size of their majorities and their ministerial prospects.

The anti-democratic tendencies of power have increased – maybe due in part to a fear of the abuse and venom some direct towards its holders. From the failure to defend judicial independence; the taking of ‘Henry VIII powers’; filibustering; claiming that the executive can ignore parliament with impunity; through to proposing the proroguing of parliament to avoid debate which could block a no-deal Brexit, the responsibility of being a good parliamentarian has taken a beating.

Many of these issues are overlooked because of a generally poor understanding of the mechanisms of the Westminster parliament. Some of these are admittedly arcane, but most of them have their roots in preventing the abuse of Executive power. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but better education in this area would considerably strengthen our democratic engagement. This used to be called ‘civics’ and was taught in most schools until relatively recently. It would be an excellent idea if, hand in hand with such curricular reform, Parliament itself could take a clear-eyed and unsentimental look at how some accretions of ‘tradition’ could be reformed or jettisoned to make its operations clearer and thus more relevant to those it represents.

The issue of party loyalty is perhaps harder to untangle. A candidate stands on their party’s manifesto and should, wherever possible, adhere to it. But it is unrealistic not to realise that as circumstances change, the stance of a party and its MPs may also need to change. Reactive howls of 'treachery' are are not helpful here. Burke is again relevant: "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." If nothing else, the events of the past three years have shown how difficult many – both within and outwith parliament – have found it to understand this and how damaging is the sclerosis which has ensued.

The whipping system, while necessary for a degree of order in the workings of parties, needs to be flexible enough to allow for principled dissent. The euphemism ‘arm-twisting’ covers a range of behaviours on the part of Whips which should have no place in a representative democracy. A party in which MPs are not permitted to use their consciences with discernment has abandoned principle for power and that should be made clear to the electorate.  ‘My party, right or wrong’ can only deliver short term domination. We are in desperate need of longer term equality.

The American political philosopher, John Rawls, wrote that it is the duty of a democratic government “to adjudicate where interests collide”. This means that neither side of the adjudication will get its entire wish list. It is the heart of a deliberative democracy, embedding the concept and practise of respectful negotiation and reasoned compromise, requiring maturity from legislators and electorate alike. Since June 2016, the lack of that attribute has brought us to a very dangerous place.

There are remedies. The capacity of the law to set limits on political action; a written constitution, reform of the voting system; a programme of education as to how our system of government functions; an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of referendums with a reformed structure for their future use, and the establishment of a constitutional convention are among them.

This is not going to be easy. Offenders are not always willing participants in reform. However, the flow of relationship between electors, elected, parliament and government has reached a point of crisis and a nadir of trust. It demands renewal. The chaos and division of the last three years will not be in vain if we learn from it the need to design institutions with the capacity to evolve and to serve us far beyond the privileged few.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.