Parliament has finally woken up – because voters are keeping their MPs in line

Today’s MPs are no longer scared of the whips. Instead, they are scared of their constituents. That’s a good thing

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

They should have seen it coming. A government defeat on an issue of war may be unprecedented, but defeat on the Syria vote did not come out of the blue. You can certainly blame poor party management, failure to prepare the ground, underestimating the poisonous legacy of Iraq — but such failings are common enough. The biggest single factor is one that ministers, the media and MPs themselves have failed to understand: Parliament has changed.

The consensus has long been that Parliament no longer matters. It is assumed to be the docile creature of the government, full of spineless or ambitious MPs who are the slaves of the party whips. In fact, unnoticed and under our noses, that has been becoming progressively less and less true throughout my 30 years in Parliament. The parliamentary kraken, slumbering in the deep, has been gradually awakening. Each successive Parliament since the early 1970s has been harder for the whips to control. The scale and frequency of backbench revolts has inexorably increased.

Ted Heath faced rebellions over the Common Market but from today’s perspective those were minor, and soon surpassed by revolts against Harold Wilson, who tried to subdue his backbenchers by threatening to withdraw their party membership, which he contemptuously likened to a ‘dog licence’. Mrs Thatcher suffered some 4,259 votes cast against her during her 12 years in office. Tony Blair’s determination to maintain iron discipline prompted the joke: ‘What is the difference between a New Labour MP and a shopping trolley? A shopping trolley has a mind of its own.’ But the rise in rebelliousness continued unchecked. In Blair’s 12 years he had to put up with no fewer than 6,520 votes against him by his own MPs; indeed, he suffered the largest rebellions since the Corn Laws.

It should be no surprise that this Parliament has been the most rebellious ever. But this trend, though meticulously recorded by Nottingham University’s Philip Cowley, has been largely ignored. Commentators preferred to sneer at contemporary MPs and believe in a golden age when independent-minded knights of the shire, free from ambition, supposedly held governments to account. That is a myth. Parliament in the 1950s was a docile lamb. Whole sessions would pass without a single MP voting against their whip. Now rarely a week goes by without some -dissent.

Because this change has been ignored, little effort has been made to explain it. My own experience over three decades in Parliament suggests it is the result of several mutually reinforcing developments. First is the growing interaction between MPs and their constituents, which has been much amplified by the advent of the internet. When I was elected in 1983, if a constituent had written asking me to vote against clause 12 of the Widgets Bill, I would probably have sent them the standard Conservative Research Department reply. I would hear no more. In subsequent parliaments, not only did the volume of correspondence rise exponentially but electors started to rebut the official reply. I would be forced to draft my own more convincing defence. Since the spread of the internet, constituents are more likely to reply criticising even my persuasive prose. Forced to look into a question from first principles, I am sometimes compelled to admit that the critics are right.

At the same time, the voters themselves have become less tribally loyal to political parties. MPs sense that an increasing proportion of their voters are choosing on personal assessment of the candidates, single issues or local questions rather than party loyalty. And websites such as theyworkforyou.com make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe.

That brings us to the third change. A whip’s most powerful appeal is to MPs’ ambition. After my first rebellion, one said to me: ‘What a shame — you had such a promising career.’ I was chilled, although the threat was for some reason not implemented. But now an MP’s fear of losing his seat may well trump the threat of losing out on a promotion which would be impossible without it.

As a result, Parliament is becoming more like it was in the 19th century. Governments, rather than relying on threats, must convince their backbenchers of the case for each of their measures, do deals with other parties or make compromises over their legislation. On the whole, that is a thoroughly good thing. I find Parliament even more worthwhile now than when I was first elected.

There is a downside, of course. If MPs swing with every short-term breeze of opinion, governments will be unable to pursue measures which are unpopular in the short term even though beneficial in the long term. But that is not inevitable. In my experience, voters respect MPs who are prepared to back unpopular policies if they are forthright in defending them and do so from conviction rather than coercion. I was warned that my advocacy of legalising cannabis would be electorally damaging. However, the readiness with which people now enter into dialogue with their MPs meant that I could respond to objectors. I probably persuaded few, but they invariably expressed respect.

Above all, governments (and commentators) should accept that Parliament has changed. They must accept that rebellions and even defeats will happen but are not the end of the world, nor the end of the government. The true lesson of the Syrian vote is that Parliament is back.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • vvputout

    First year law students used to be taught that the ability of a PM to call an election at will kept back benchers in order.

    Now we have fixed term parliaments.

  • mikewaller

    Dear old Peter Lilley, bowing to the inevitable and perhaps subconsciously enjoying seeing others as hamstrung as he often was. All voter power does is to make the appalling proprietocracy (which comprises about half a dozen people) that runs most of the major newspapers, even more powerful than it already is. Put another way, a toxic combination of Sun and Mail readers are now running the country. The whole thrust of the Syria debate has been along the lines of “We don’t want another Iraqi”. Yet anybody with half a brain knows the real issues are (a) the wisdom or otherwise of taking what may be the last chance to keeping biological and chemical weapons out of the average tyrant’s arsenal; and, (b) whether we are prepared to allow the leaders of Russia and China to be the arbiters in all matters concerning the physical enforcement of that modicum of human decency our race can aspire towards. If so, we might just as well give up any ambitions in that direction.

    One other broadly related point. The present Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, has been at it so long that he started his political career as an aide to Sir Anthony Eden, the architect of Britain’s biggest post-war humiliation. Yesterday he seemed to be encouraging the Prime Minister to put another large blot on our national escutcheon by steering clear of military involvement now. With two such unfortunate bookends to his career is it not time he asked for the Chiltern Hundreds?

    • gerontius

      Seems those Sun and Mail readers are smarter than you.
      You want war? Go fight it yourself.

      • mikewaller

        You missed your historical period; should have been alongside Chamberlain at Hendon. Now, as then, we will pay a very high price for sitting on our hands. Soon every dictator will want his own set of biological and chemical weapons – so much easier than nuclear – then, as they topple, these weapons will fall into the hands of al Qaeda and the like; and next stop, London.

        Rest assured I will take no please in telling myopics like you, “I told you so”.

        • Paul J

          You’re the guy cheering on al qeada in Syria, chum, not us.

          Russia can already point to an al qeada emirate around Syria’s 5th biggest city, Al Raqua, and say “I told you so”.

          • mikewaller

            No, my shortsighted friend; al Qeada got its toe in the door because the morally bankrupt Putin used none of his enormous influence with Assad to make some early concessions to the ordinary folk opposing his murderous rule.

            What I am rather anxious to see prevented is the green light being given to the holding of biological and chemical weapons by tyrants around the world. Do this – as in effect you are doing – and you massively increase al Qeada’s chances of getting their hands on some. But there, I suppose that whenever you see a can, you cannot help but kick it down the road.

  • Christopher Mooney

    I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

    Along with fixed term parliaments, that’s a very presidential system.

    Which is fine, but it opens politics up to (even more) corruption.

    Lobbiests, big businesses, gun companies, fast foot companies, cigerette companies, defense contractor spend billions targeting voters – to the point where you’re basically unelectable unless you do whatever they want

    • Paul J

      Well, I dunno.

      It’s a lot easier for a lobbyist to shove cash at a political party or bunch of politicians than use expensive advertising and PR to target voters, and they’re more likely to experience pushback in public forums.

  • Bonkim

    You are assuming most people understand the underlying causes of world events, and able to link them to likely solutions – vast majority of people have only a vague idea of most things in the media and are unable to think independently on world affairs – need to be told – and there are many interpretations, and half-truths in the air waves.

    • Paul J

      “vast majority of people have only a vague idea of most things in the
      media and are unable to think independently on world affairs – need to
      be told”

      That’s hasbara folks, right in the flesh.

  • bengeo

    Re: David Cameron, wouldn’t be anything to do with this, would it?

    “In January – March 2013 the trade relations between UK and Russia were marked by the rise in export values, which reflects the dynamics of gradual overcoming of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008.

    In the first quarter the turnover between the two countries amounted to 5.6 billion dollars and thus has increased by 15.6% compared to the same period in 2012. At the same time, the share of the United Kingdom in Russia’s foreign trade turnover with the EU countries amounted to 5.7% (compared to that of 4.9% in 2012).

    In January – March 2013 UK held the tenth place in terms of volume of foreign trade among all the trade partners of Russia in foreign countries. Trade volumes with the UK constituted 2.9% of Russia’s foreign trade turnover, 3% of exports and 2.7% of imports.

    Russia remains to be a very perspective export market for the UK, which at present accounts for some 1.5% of UK exports.

    One may state that the volumes of UK exports to Russia recover faster than those of the British exports to all other countries in total (British exports to other countries in January-March 2013 decreased by 3.5% in dollar terms).”

  • Scared? What happened to simple respect? An MP is a constituent’s representative. Not master. Or slave. It’s a two-way street. The media are now nothing more than self-serving stirrers.

    This ‘whip’ lark has always seemed bonkers. What’s the point of a proxy in Westminster if they not only can’t reflect my wishes but their own?

  • drydamol1


    Similar to being in a Zoo we are dominated by Keepers,the
    animals and us provide a function at our own cost.We legitimize our Keepers
    Actions by performing as we are told,which gives the false impression that we
    are content and satisfied with our lot.The main difference between us and
    animals kept in a Zoo is that they separate species of the same family,Lions,Tigers,Panthers,Pumas
    & Leopards..Yet we as a species are becoming increasingly mixed,we are like
    the Cats but Culturally Different,we were meant to live separately.We have
    extreme differences with Cultural Religion The only thing in common is we are
    conditioned to accept physical violence but not physical love.Who are
    Politicians to disrupt our daily lives for what they see as ‘modernising for
    the future’.They seem to have become detached from Reality and elevated themselves to a Pedestal whereby they
    think it a Divine Right to control us.


  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Perhaps the scale and frequency of backbench revolts has inexorably increased, in direct proportion to the insidious creep of the so-called executive effect.

    In my experience there are times when the concerns one has can only be taken seriously and accounted for safely by one’s M.P.. for example when workers/executive types cannot and do not help. It doesn’t matter which party M.P’s belong to.. as Parliamentarians they really must work for their constituents first.

  • Mike

    The whip system is undemocratic and always has been. In no other enterprise would it be allowed and use of it would be a criminal offence.