Break the Whip

It should be illegal to influence an MP’s vote

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th June 2001

A few months ago, I accepted an invitation to speak at the Oxford Union, the university society famed throughout the world for the brilliance of its debates. I don’t think they’ll be inviting me again.

We were supposed to be discussing an issue of critical importance (“this house believes that big business is the natural enemy of the environment”), but it soon became clear that hardly any of the students who had chosen to speak were remotely interested in the subject. One of my supporters appeared to have confined his research to examining the definitions of each of the words in the motion. One of my opponents flatly contradicted himself six times in his efforts to establish his circumlocutory magnificence.

The president – a drawling, swaggering 20-year-old in white tie and tails – announced that, as was customary, the Spectator magazine had reserved a magnum of champagne for the best speech from the floor; before awarding it, as also appeared to be customary, to the person who made the evening’s most fatuous contribution. Throughout the “debate”, the speakers used conventions which made the House of Lords look chic: “no honourable sir, I will not yield”. The men forced their squeaky voices down the register until they sounded like port-soaked peers of the realm. They were no more than 19 or 20 years old, but it seemed to me that they had hearts like stones.

I went home feeling physically sick, and turned on the radio while I was brushing my teeth. It was Today in Parliament. I listened with a growing sense of recognition: there was the same cleverness, and the same utter lack of conviction. It struck me more forcibly than ever before that power in Britain remains the preserve of those who who care for nothing but themselves. Sean Woodward, complete with butler, estate and personality bypass, slides effortlessly across the house. Michael Portillo, once the most illiberal man in mainstream politics, can reposition himself as the champion of the oppressed. When politics is a matter of convenience, not conviction, only the self-interested prosper.

So how, in the age of information, do these people continue to steal power from the rest of us? An article this weekend by Tess Kingham, who was elected Labour MP for Gloucester in 1997, but who stood down at this election, shows just how far unprincipled and power-hungry people will go to defend their political monopoly. When she refused to vote for cuts in disability benefits, Labour whips threatened that the government could withdraw resources from her constituency. If she continued to cause trouble, she was warned, her “political career was finished”.

She complained to one of the papers. In response, the whips threatened to expose her private life in the tabloids. Another woman MP who refused to vote as the government instructed was physically assaulted in a House of Commons corridor. Tess Kingham was given a ballot form for the national executive committee elections, only to find that it had already been filled in for her by party managers. She was told how to vote even on early day motions, which are supposed to be independent of party control.

It’s impossible for idealistic, free-thinking people like Tess Kingham to survive in a system like this. But for some of those I met in the Oxford Union, who appear to possess neither standards nor principles, it offers a straight path to power. Only those who are prepared to make a mockery of representative democracy can prosper under the parliamentary whip.

Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair promised to change all this. He would, he maintained, “create a new relationship between the government and the people, based on trust, freedom, choice and responsibility.” He launched a programme of constitutional reform to tackle some of the 17th-Century absurdities which still govern our political system. And he did, in truth, introduce some significant changes: establishing Welsh and Scottish assemblies, allowing the passage of the human rights act and reducing the number of hereditary peers allowed to vote in the House of Lords. But, as the pressure group Charter 88 has shown, Labour has swept away parts of the old constitution, but failed to replace it with a new one. By dismantling some of the old-fashioned checks and balances, it has merely consolidated the inordinate power of the prime minister and his advisers.

Mrs Thatcher’s constitutional legacy lives on in the New Labour government. Tony Blair has continued to challenge the independence of the civil service, to remove power from local government, to bypass the cabinet, to bully his MPs. His office appears to have controlled even the appointment of the new “people’s peers”. In March, when one of the government’s bills looked as if it would run out of parliamentary time, Labour MPs were forced to agree that the bill “shall be deemed to have been reported to the House … as if” its clauses and schedules “had been ordered to stand”. In other words, as Private Eye has pointed out, for the first time in history the Commons voted to pretend that a bill had been passed by parliament when it hadn’t. MPs are now all but redundant.

Though New Labour has dismissed real constitutional reform as “a chattering classes issue”, it must surely now be obvious that the abysmal turnout among voters of all classes was the result of its failure to change the way that politics works in Britain. When Labour MPs are forced to vote as if they are Tories, there’s not much point in choosing between them. And while our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system survives, there’s not much point, in most constituencies, in choosing anyone else. When the political class keeps power to itself, it can’t expect the rest of us to participate.

It seems to me that one of the key tasks of the next four years is to mobilise the millions of disenchanted voters who stayed away from the ballot, to demand both a wider choice of electable candidates and their freedom to vote as their constituents would wish. Proportional representation and the full state funding of political parties must clearly be part of the package, but we also need to find the means to prevent people who are interested only in themselves from representing anyone else.

My proposal is to peg MPs’ salaries to the national average wage and forbid them any further earnings. This would ensure that they were forced to live like the rest of us, rather than, as the sonorous pipsqueaks of the Oxford Union are practising to live, like our lords and masters. People interested only in self-advancement would keep away from parliament.

It seems to me that there is also a clear case for abandoning the entire parliamentary whipping system. It should be illegal to interfere in an MP’s decisions. If parties wish to persuade their members to vote in a particular way, they should do so by means of argument, not threats. Any suggestion that someone’s voting record will affect the course of her career would be referred to a parliamentary ombudsman. With a written constitution, full public disclosure of all government business and an enforceable list of MPs’ duties towards their constituents, the people of Britain might begin to see the point of parliament once more.

But if Blair is not prepared to complete the constitutional reform he has begun, we’ll be left with the least accountable political system Britain has seen since women secured the vote. And when politics belongs to someone else, it’s not hard to see why the electorate should be so reluctant to endorse it.