We should reject compulsory by-elections for MPs who defect

We should reject compulsory by-elections for MPs who defect

by James Bundy
article from Monday 4, March, 2019

DISCUSSION SURROUNDING compulsory by-elections for MPs who defect from the party whose platform they were elected upon has recently restarted after the defection of 11 MPs to the newly-formed, ‘The Independent Group’ (TIG). People have also called out Sarah Wollaston, one of the 11 MPs who joined TIG, for not resigning as she sponsored a bill in 2011 that called for MPs who changed party to face a compulsory by-election. 

I disagree with calls for a compulsory by-election when MPs change party as I believe it is a fundamental attack on our unique constitution. 

Under the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, the people of Britain elect an individual to represent them at Westminster. The great benefit of this system is that every person in Britain has a representative in parliament who is accountable to them, regardless of the party of the representative. Making an election compulsory when an MP such as Anna Soubry (pictured) resigns from a party or changes party removes the role of the individual and puts the emphasis on the party.

When an MP is elected, I believe they are entitled to do what they want for the parliamentary term, as long as it is legal. If they continuously vote against their party’s whip, then they should face internal party discipline – but if they are voting against the whip for legitimate reason, and then subsequently have the party whip removed, then why should they face a by-election? A compulsory by-election will remove individual thought from our MPs, put less scrutiny on the Government and guarantee that the whip of the governing party becomes law. 

It will also harm constituents. One of the many wonders of the FPTP is that the British electorate have one person to go to when they have an issue. Ranging from issues such as litter and bin collections to immigration and welfare, having one point of contact who then can contact the appropriate bodies ensures that British people are well presented. Some will argue that this constituency representation will not end, but in fact be emboldened with compulsory by-elections, but I totally disagree.

If individual thought were removed from parliament then there would be calls to remove the FPTP electoral system. MPs do much more than help their constituents with case work. They represent their constituency when it comes to voting on national legislation. There is a famous quote by Winston Churchill which does a good job of describing the role of an MP when voting on national legislation:  

“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke's famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there in no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.”

We would be unwise to ignore the advice given to us by one of our greatest Prime Minister’s. An MP must always prioritise their country first, their constituents second and their party third. The laws and conventions surrounding our parliament must therefore support this notion. If an MP feels that changing or quitting party is the best way to represent their constituents, then they are right to do so. A compulsory by-election; therefore, undermines the advice that Churchill gave us and one of the fundamental reasons why I oppose such a move.  

Furthermore, if an environment is created where MPs prioritise voting along party lines than their constituent wishes, calls to change our voting system will be legitimised. One of the strongest arguments against FPTP is that there is a democratic deficit. In the 2015 General Election, example, UKIP got 3.8m votes and 1 MP whereas the SNP got under 1.5m votes and over 50 MPs. This argument is defeated, however, due to the stronger argument of constituency-based representation. 

There is not a single MP that represents an constituents in a proper Proportional Representation system. If someone, therefore, has a problem with bins or welfare, who do they go to? Do they have to contact every member of the party they support? What happens if their party still doesn’t have any representatives? Worse still, even if they do have someone to contact that MP would not be directly accountable to the voter as they would only be directly accountable to the party. Under Proportional Representation, there is no way to remove an MP unless they are dropped down their own party list. This, therefore, would create a system of MPs who just blindly follow the party list in the hope of re-election. This is the last thing British politics needs as people across our country already feel out of touch with the establishment. 

People may say it is far-fetched to argue that making such a small change in electoral law would have such an impact on our country. However, as soon as you put the emphasis on the party, which a compulsory by-election for quitting or changing party creates, then the greatest argument for FPTP is undermined. Emphasis on the party, therefore, would legitimise calls to make our voting system Proportional Representation. Part of the reason why people voted to take back control from the EU was because they felt the establishment out of touch. If we ignore the advice of Churchill and make MPs feel they need to put party before constituent, then the establishment will be even more out of touch. 

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