Flipping MPs! Why can't we get rid of them?

If we want to restore trust in democracy, we cannot allow the kind of antics we have seen by Remain MPs to continue. If our elected representatives change party, they should be required to face a by-election

by Joshua Mackenzie-Lawrie on 1 November 2019 13:36

The current zombie Parliament is finally coming to an end. It has many flaws and the activities of many MPs have pushed the barriers of how far they can go within the constraints of their position.

However, one area which has been exposed in recent years is the outdated regulation put in place to govern the relationship between MPs and the voters who elected them. In the last 3 years we have seen MPs stand for election on one political platform, but then vote in the exact opposite direction.

Some MPs have gone even further and changed parties altogether, leaving constituents who elected candidates based on promises they made under their party manifestos being left without the party representative they thought they had voted in to Parliament.

People will argue that switches of party allegiance have happened for decades. While this may be true, the scale of defections has never reached the levels we are experiencing today. Between 1997 and 2017 there were 10 occasions when MPs switched parties of their own accord and not sought a by-election.

However, since 2017 alone, there have been 35 instances of MPs switching Party without seeking confirmation by their electors. 32 of these have been Remainers and this does not include the so-called ‘Conservative Rebels’ who all have voted directly against manifesto commitments.

It should be noted 2 key Brexiteers - Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell - both fought and won by-elections after they defected from the Conservatives to UKIP. Notice the difference between this and people like Anna Soubry and Phillip Lee running from the people they are meant to represent.

This is all possible because of our out of date Electoral Law which at present means voters elect individual candidates in each constituency and not representatives of a political party. While this idea was relevant in the past before the rise of national campaigns via social media and presidential style TV leaders’ debates, now voters are rarely voting for their local candidate, and are instead voting for a political party.

Up until 1968, ballot papers did not have party logos or party names next to each candidate. This meant that should a prospective MP wish to win, they had to make sure everyone in the constituency knew their name and what they stood for, instead of what happens now, when candidates can rely on national advertising campaigns to raise their profile.

Surely as we now operate on a far more party-political basis than ever before, it is time to bring the regulations into line to truly hold MPs to account if they go against the promises on which they are elected. These MPs are happy to take money from donations to big parties, enabling them to get into office. So, if they subsequently flip positions and turn away from the party, they should be subject to a by-election and not be able simp;y to ignore those voters who based their decision at the ballot box on the promises made to them.

The current game of musical chairs in Parliament without the consent of the people is drastically different to some of the electoral principles of the past. It used to be the case, if your MP was made a minister, they had to seek re-election via a by-election on the principle of the people consenting to their MP being made a minister.

A prime example of this was Winston Churchill who lost a by-election in 1908 on these grounds and then had to find another seat to stand in and seek re-election. This principle was put in place because, when MPs become ministers, they cease to be able to represent their constituents to the same level, owing to a lack of time and an inability to criticise the Government because of ‘Cabinet Collective Responsibility’. Yet in 1926 this policy was scrapped by a Backbench Private Members Bill. Evidently MPs had had enough of putting their constituents first.

Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, actually advocated extending the MP Recall Act of 2015 to give more power to constituents, enabling them to hold their MPs to account over breaking manifesto promises, or anything else they deemed unacceptable. However, this was rejected as an amendment.

Perhaps MPs had a premonition of their betrayal of Brexit, and knew they would have to face being held account for their actions if Goldsmith’s amendment had passed. Instead, MPs can only be recalled by constituents if a Parliamentary Standards Panel deems an MP is in breach one of three circumstances:

** If the MP has committed a crime and been given a custodial prison sentence.

** If the MP has been suspended from Parliament for over 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days.

** If the MP has submitted false expenses claims.

This has resulted in only 3 by-elections as a result of a Recall petition. Hardly a real tool of power for the people.

All the recent defections and flip flops have only been made worse by the current situation within Parliament caused by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. MPs who have gone against their voters were able, for longer than was decent, to block any form of accountability the public could have via a General Election.

When looking at the many lost votes in recent months, Boris Johnson’s and Theresa May’s legislative agendas would have been cleared without issue if those who were elected on Conservative Manifestos had voted with the Conservative Government, as those who voted them into office would have expected.

Instead they simply switched parties and claimed to be sticking to their "principles". Remainers claim constituents have the right to change their MP at the next election, but if those same MPs refuse to allow a General Election in which change could be made, the power lies with the MPs and not the voters.

Surely in this time of extreme political uncertainty, when trust in our political system is at an all-time low, and national campaigns will be more important than ever before in the upcoming election on December 12th, the Electoral Commission and the House of Commons must - alongside revoking the Fixed Term Parliament Act - make radical changes to better encourage honesty and accountability.

Should an MP wish to leave a party after being elected, or go against expressed Manifesto promises, then they should have to seek re-election via a by-election in order to gain the consent of their constituents. Never again should voters face the uncertainty of not knowing how their MP is going to vote despite promises made during an election campaign.

The December 12th election is one of the single most important elections in British history. If voters are truly going to believe their MPs' promises on Brexit -- or any other issue -- and we finally Get Britain Out of the EU, then they must be able to trust their representatives and have the power to remove them.

Joshua Mackenzie-Lawrie is a Senior Research Executive, for the cross-party grassroots campaign Get Britain Out

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