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Members of Parliament (Change of Political Party Affiliation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:34 pm on 23rd November 2011.

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 1:34 pm, 23rd November 2011

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that any Member of Parliament who changes voluntarily his or her political party affiliation described on the ballot paper at the time he or she was elected is deemed to have vacated his or her seat;
and for connected purposes.

This Bill seeks to ensure that any Member who decides to change parties—in other words, crosses the Floor or “defects”, should trigger an automatic by-election so that their constituents can have the final say on their decision. I realise that some Members may have hesitations about such a Bill. It would, after all, seek to overturn centuries of tradition that have allowed Members to change parties with little regard for their constituents’ opinion on the matter.

At the same time, the question of Members changing parties is not a new one. Former and current Members from all political parties have taken the decision to do so, including a former Prime Minister. Equally, former Members from every political party have previously called for a defecting MP to give their constituents the right to validate their decision. Let me be clear: I do not take issue with the right of Members to defect from parties. In an established democracy, we must value the freedom of individual Members to cross the Floor if they so wish. I can fully accept and understand that Members may, at times, no longer find themselves at one with the party they joined. I ask only that they give their constituents the same choice that they themselves have been able to make.

Nor do I wish to criticise any Member or former Member for the action they have taken, or the judgments they have made according to their own conscience. They will have to live with them. However, it is neither right nor fair that a constituent should live with that decision, often for many years, until a general election is called. According to the House of Commons Library there has never been a debate in the House on this issue. At a time when the public’s faith in our political system is at a low ebb, and when trust in politics remains broken, I believe that this is precisely the kind of topic that we should be debating.

If we asked any man or woman on the street the solution would be obvious: if an MP is elected for a certain party, only to decide to defect to another, it is only right that they should allow their constituents a say on their decision. That is the honest thing to do, and it is the right thing to do. It is easy to state the historical arguments against this Bill, mostly stemming from Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774. Burke argued that we are sent here as representatives, not delegates, and as such sit in the House as individuals, not bound by party constraint, but each free to choose how we best represent our constituents, even if that seems to be against their best interests.

The notion that constituents vote for their Members of Parliament as individuals to exercise their judgment on behalf of their constituents, and not to stand for the party ticket on which they were elected, may have been relevant in the 18th century, but that is no longer the case in the 21st century. We can no longer continue the charade that we are each elected solely as individuals. To do so is simply not to be speaking the same language as our constituents. It is an undeniable truth that the vast majority of constituents will vote for the party, with the Member the embodiment of the party locally.

Parties clearly do matter, otherwise there would be no need for a Member to change from one party to another. Such a Member may as well sit as an independent. Indeed, let those who wish to maintain the illusion, and believe that we are elected as sole individuals, stand as individuals, devoid of a party banner.

There are precedents in this House for a political defection to trigger a by-election. Bruce Douglas-Mann voluntarily triggered one in 1982, in the Mitcham and Morden constituency, when he left Labour for the Social Democratic party. He followed in footsteps of Dick Taverne, who in 1973 resigned from the Labour party, only to call a by-election and be re-elected under the banner of Democratic Labour. By-elections like these should be the rule, not the exception.

Nor would the Bill be the first to legislate on a Member of Parliament’s defection. Defection laws have been passed in India, providing that someone can be disqualified for voluntarily giving up

“membership of his original political party”.

Of 193 countries worldwide, 41 have laws about crossing the Floor. Indeed, in Canada, a Bill almost identical to my own was debated only this month.

I do not deny that this change in the law would raise other issues that would need to be investigated fully, but I would welcome the scrutiny that the House could provide by debating the merits and demerits of the Bill. For instance, the reason why I suggest that the Bill should apply only to Members who have voluntarily changed parties is to ensure that the withdrawal of the Whip would not affect a Member’s ability to remain as a representative. It is not the Bill’s intention to strengthen the party system, or to strengthen the control of any parliamentary party. It is intended only to strengthen the hand of our constituents. Loyalty to our constituents lies at the forefront of what we all, whichever political party we stand for, wish to achieve as Members of Parliament.

Edmund Burke once stated that he was a Member of Parliament, not the Member for Bristol. As a proud Bristolian, I am the Member for Kingswood first and a Member of Parliament second. We have a choice: we can stand by the arguments first formulated more than 200 years ago, noble though they are, or we can choose to face forwards, into the 21st century, and accept that we cannot go on as we have done. We must accept that the status quo cannot remain, and that we must seek to form a new relationship with our voters, our constituents—the men and women who put us here in the first place.

The central issue must be one of trust. At a time when the public want politicians to be more accountable, if a Member of this House decides to defect, it should lie with the voters and the constituents whether that Member should remain a Member of Parliament or not. We need to look beyond the confines of this Chamber, and ask ourselves what is so wrong with a Member who defects from one party to another asking their constituents’ opinion. What should any defecting

MP be so afraid of? Who are we to turn our backs on our constituents—the voters who placed us here—without their assent? Without them we are nothing.

I end by paraphrasing the words of that other Bristol MP, John Locke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his honesty, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices that to his ambition.”

Annotations

Richard McCarthy
Posted on 26 Nov 2011 4:27 am

This annotation has been removed