There has been debate recently over whether an MP should vote for a personal view, or should seek to represent his constituents. People often say they like “independent” MPs, MPs who will disagree with their party where necessary. They say they like an MP who represents his constituents. On many issues constituents are very divided and hold a wide range of contradictory views. People also vote in very large numbers for leading parties, recognising that is the way to influence who governs.
Let me try and shed some light on how an MP forms his or her decision. The MP’s personal view, if he or she holds one at all on an issue, is not the most important consideration, and can often be irrelevant. Indeed, if the MP holds a personal view based on his or her personal interests, the view has to be ignored or suppressed. An MP should not be using public office to further a personal agenda.
An MP should ask what is in the national interest. He should ask what is his party’s view? What did he and his party put as their view at the last Election? What is the view of his constituents – is there a strong or majority view? Is that view in agreement or disagreement with his party’s view?
When you first become a candidate you discover you need to have views on a wide range of topics you had little considered before. One of the great interests of the job as an MP is the huge range of issues, often quite detailed, that people expect you to take an interest in or to have a view on. Belonging to a large party can help. Your party will have experts in most topics, and will have considered many of these issues. You may find the party view on a matter you do not know much about is just fine, offering you the back up you need on the topic. As you become a more experienced MP you gain confidence in your knowledge of a wider range of issues, and learn more of the limitations of some party positions. You are also in a position to seek to influence or change your party’s view.
The “free vote” issues are ones where the main parties agree to disagree amongst themselves and leave it to candidates and MPs to have their own view. These tend to be issues where the great religions have strong views and are often Home Office and Justice Department matters. Some MPs have strong views themselves on these issues. Others seek to reflect majority opinion or majority opinion within their local parties on these things.
In the current Parliament many Conservative MPs wish to be true to the principles and policies they and their party set out before the Election, despite now being in Coalition. Some decry the lack of Conservative loyalty to the leadership. Others understand that many Conservative MPs are trying to keep alight the flame of Conservatism at a time when their leaders make compromises with Lib Dems to keep the Coalition together. The Conservative rebels mirror the Lib Dem ones. It is just that there are so many more Conservative rebels, because there are so few Ministerial jobs for Conservative MPs proportionately compared to the Lib Dems.
An MP has access to plenty of opinion and information when making up his or her mind on an issue. A sensible MP also understands the limitations of his or her understanding and relies on others or on professional advice where necessary. I am not a nuclear scientist, so I would need professional advice on the risks and methods of nuclear generation. I am a long term student of banks andthe financial system, so can form more of my own view of what is needed to transform the UK banking industry. MPs who specialise often are more effective. They may start with expertise from past jobs. They may increase or create the expertise by being intelligent readers and questioners in a given area of policy as MPs.
There are as many ways of forming a judgement about matters as there are MPs. In the end the main question should be What is in the national interest? The important balance to strike is between the wishes of constituency, party and commonsense. A personal opinion is a luxury that may not be appropriate.