So I’ve been having a pretty interesting conversation on Twitter with Rob and Kevin, two exceptionally savvy mates whose opinions I trust. We’ve been chatting about a nuance of the system of representation displayed in last night’s vote on Syrian air strikes. Let me explain…
I believe that, on being given a Free Vote by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, constituency MPs should have at least tried to consider the opinions and preferences of the people they were elected to represent. I said that, if was an MP given a Free Vote on whether to bomb Syria or not, then – regardless of my own personal opinion on the matter (more on that later) – I would have done all I could to see what my constituents wanted me to do. I’d have sent out an email, got my staff to call constituents, ask the people I was charged with representing whether they thought we should bomb Syria or not.
Then, as unscientific as it is, I would use the majority view among those I was paid to represent to inform my own decision. If the majority of the people who I reached wanted me to (for example) vote AGAINST bombing then I’d do what I was paid to do and represent that view in the Commons by voting accordingly.
Jeremy Corbyn does something similar every week! He throws an email out saying, basically, “What should I ask David Cameron about this week in PMQs?” – or, in other words, what do the people of this country think are the important issues of the day, not what do I and other politicians – who are likely to have vastly differing lives to the majority of the people they represent – think. It results in less questions about “elite topics” and more discussion about things that are effecting people NOW, like welfare, public service cuts and poverty. It’s a good thing!
And, more than just bringing the issues people want aired to the front, rather than chatting more about high-rolling businessmen and their bank balances, it also represents the people!
I’ve used that word – represent – a lot in this post already and it’s the whole point of my argument. MPs are elected by the people. We, the people, make our decision based on what the candidates tell us they stand for. We’ve got ourselves into a habit of voting on trust, or voting in line with our party. We delegate decisions to these men and women and trust them to do the right thing. But is this really what happens?
Occasionally – you may say usually – yes, it is. If a candidate runs on the promise that she’ll protect your local hospital from closure with all her might then you can usually trust her not to vote against its closure should that situation arise. But what of war? I think it’s safe to say that NONE of our MPs, from any party, ran their election campaign with the promise to bomb Syria. Of course, they didn’t promise lots of other things either, but when an issue is as big as this one, shouldn’t the people of this country have at least some say in what happens?
Wouldn’t it be better to look at a Labour MP voting FOR war and thinking “well, I disagree with him totally, but that’s what his constituents wanted!” – you don’t have to like it but, in this instance, it is at least a little easier to see the guy’s point of view. He was representing his constituents. Compare that with some of the MPs who voted FOR war last night, whose constituents are now complaining to, complaining about, are disappointed in. Those MPs can be said to be many things, but representative of their constituents majority view they are not! Suddenly they look like they have an agenda all their own and any amount of “well, you elected me to be your delegate so I decided for you!” talk only serves to sicken their constituents more.
Wouldn’t it be the decent thing to do, if told you can just vote as you like (Please don’t get me started on party whipped voting! That’s another rant for another day!), to at least try to get a consensus from the people you claim to represent? Are these MPs representatives OF their people or simply FOR them? What I mean is, do They Work For You (as the website says) or not? If so, that means you are their boss! Tell them what you think they should do! If they don’t listen, if they let the majority down, then YOU have the power to elect someone else to represent you instead! That’s democracy! Remember democracy?
But what if, when the constituent majority speaks, the MP absolutely and fundamentally disagrees with his people’s view? Should that MP vote FOR a war 70% of his constituency wants even though he is 100% against it, personally? Well, that’s a moral choice we all face every day: Do you sit by when a work colleague is treated unfairly, or when your employer’s policy cons a customer? Sometimes. But some make a stand. Some say “Sorry, my principles must take precedent…” Rebellion suddenly becomes a personal, not a political, protest. You aren’t rebelling against a party you want to change to fit your agenda, or a leader you want ousted. You’re making a personal moral stand. And that’s okay, you know! Admirable, even.
Of course, this is all just waffle right now because we DO have party whips to make sure that MPs represent their leaders not their constituents (when disagreement occurs) and rebellion is met with discipline and ridicule from within the party. Moral decency becomes cowardice, thirst for more facts becomes woolly pacifism. Also, the vote’s happened already – we’re off to war in Syria, whether the people want that or not. Our overlords have decided. They Work For You? Really? When will they prove it?