Is a Parliamentary vote non binding on a Thursday?


¬†¬† Yeesterday we saw how a full whipped vote of the Commons is binding, requiring the government to accept its terms or engineer a reversal or amendment. Today I wish to look at the new question of “backbench” or “thursday” business.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† I welcome David Cameron’s excellent decision to introduce a number of days in the Parliamentary year when backbench MPs can choose the business. Normally business is chosen by the government, or by the leadership of the opposition, to an agreed timetable.¬†Backbench business days¬†¬†are as good for Parliamentary demcoracy as John Major’s great decision to launch powerful Select Committees to question and advise government departments on policy and administration.

          Because in the early period of the new system backbenchers sometimes chose issues which did not suit the government, and arranged votes which could result in a government view or policy being overturned, the government is now seeking to establish the convention that backbench business can only result in a non  binding vote. Again, this needs examination.

           Two weeks ago I attended Parliament when we were debating the issue of the closure of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I had divided views on topic. I had sympathy with the local MPs who wished to defend their battalion. I also understood the need to allow senior officers and Ministers to streamline the forces sensibly, given the decision to cut the amount of money spent on the army. At the end of the exchanges there was a division. I asked the whips for advice on how I should vote. They said that they were instructing all government payroll members to abstain, so that was also  their advice to me. I agreed to do so.

           The vote resulted in a government defeat by 57 to 3. Those voting for the maintenance of the battalion were mainly local MPs concerned about it, and defence specialists who are unhappy about the army cuts. MPs came from both sides of the House to vote Yes to the motion.  The government says this was a non binding vote.

           I think they have a better case here than over the EU vote. The turnout was small. Many MPs accepted whips advice to abstain. If a significant  group of MPs or the official opposition  think the mood of the whole house might support overturning government policy on this issue, then they could insist on another vote in official opposition time or on some other occasion. If the Opposition picked it up as an issue, the government would then  have to instruct its MPs to vote it down.

             It would be better if the government simply voted down backbench motions they do not accept at the time. However, I can see the force of allowing low turnout votes. Then it is up to Parliament to insist on a proper vote where the government has to engage its forces, to test the true will of the House, if people think the minority raising the issue in debate in practice speak for the majority. All of these things are subject to argument and day by day tactics.

          Parliament is likely to  allow government non binding  votes  on backbench business, but they could be escalated to binding  votes if Parliament wishes. If government were to  lose a thursday vote by a large margin with more than half the House against, I think it then has to accept that was a binding vote after all. I do not think there is anything like a majority to save the 2nd Battalion, so the will of the House was not on this occasion thwarted.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Perhaps there should be a convention that where the government wants a thursday vote to be non binding, the Backbench Business Committee should table a motion starting with “This House advises the government to….”

Then the government could respond during the debate or shortly after to the advice either way. It would be entitled to reject it. It would also need , of course, to watch carefully the voting patterns. If too many MPs overall, or too many government MPs supported the advisory motion, there could also be a binding motion later.


  1. Steve Cox
    November 3, 2012

    The fact that you’re fiddling around with things like this shows what a totally screwed up system our Parliamentary democracy really is. Time to scrap it and start over with an e-democracy that’s suited to the 21st century and the internet age. The mess that we inherited and which you’re bravely trying to improve was suited to the 19th and early 20th centuries. I fail to see why we are still using it when there are much superior alternatives.

    1. Jerry
      November 3, 2012

      Err what “internet age”, clue, something like 25% of the adult UK population do not have internet access or have limited bandwidth, such as still being on dial-up.

      1. Steve Cox
        November 4, 2012

        Perhaps, but you should also remember that 35% of the electorate couldn’t even be bothered to vote at the last election, dwarfing the 25% that you say don’t have a decent connection. . If your opinion, and having your voice heard, mean anything to you, you will probably make sure that you have a decent internet connection.

        1. Jerry
          November 4, 2012

          @Steve Cox: There is a huge difference between not wanting to vote and not being able to vote… QED!

          Anyway why should people be obliged to “have a decent internet connection” [1], some people don’t even have a computer, some wouldn’t know how to use one if they were given a computer, some (elderly) people don”t even know what a computer is.

          [1] assuming that it is even possible without moving house, considering the deficit of decent broadband in the more rural areas, something the free free market ISP’s and telco’s are not in any hurry to spend money on.

    2. APL
      November 7, 2012

      Steve Cox: “Time to scrap it and start over with an e-democracy .. ”


      e-democracy == e-fraud.

      And don’t tell me those folk who can’t work out how to switch on their own computer can manage their encryption and identification certificates. They cannot.

      The advantage of going to the poll booth is that you can, if the tellers are on the ball, get an idea if somebody is trying to vote more than once, or is under duress.

      Which is why the postal vote, that Labour extended to just about anybody, has been so open to fraud.

      I would agree that Parliament has proved itself pretty much useless and behaves as an impediment to democracy promoting its own self interest, so I suggest rolling referenda, the most important of which would be the vote to approve the finance bill each year.

  2. Martin Cole
    November 3, 2012

    Under the TEU and the TFEU is any Parliamentary vote, other perhaps than a repeal of the 1972 ECA, binding on any of us at all?

  3. Peter Bamford
    November 3, 2012

    What is the point of an MP that asks a Whip ‘how should I vote?’

  4. Brian Tomkinson
    November 3, 2012

    It all sounds like a charade to me. Cameron allows the backbenchers to choose the business whilst ignoring it if it doesn’t suit him, which is most of the time. He throws you some scraps to keep you quiet whilst he does what he wants. Parliament will not have authority until MPs put principle before partisan party politics. With MPs in your party like Sir Tony Baldry, who made the most appallingly partisan speech in the EU budget debate, there is very little hope of that.

  5. forthurst
    November 3, 2012

    The Oxford Union is a debating society; the House of Commons is a legislature.

  6. oldtimer
    November 3, 2012

    You raise a very important issue. It is easy to see how single issue pressure groups could, almost certainly will, organise themselves to lobby MPs committed to their cause to vote for motins they hav pushed for, while disinterested MPs do not vote. The case you mention is an example. It can and will apply in all walks of life, not just about the fate of a battalion.

    I know next to nothing about parliamentary procedure or the management of parliamentary time so this suggestion may not fly. Could not a convention be established whereby a backbench motion is elevated to official business for a further debate and vote – a binding vote – provided certain criteriua were satisfied about the number of MPs attending and the size of the majority achieved on the original motion?

  7. Jerry
    November 3, 2012

    I can’t help but think that there is a parallel here, many conservatives over the last 40 years have insisted that bosses should be free to manage, that union members can have an opinion but the final decision must be left to the ‘managers’, how does that doctrine play out if one swaps government for “managers” and backbench for “union”?

    If any government backbench MP thinks that they should be able to instruct their boss (the PM) what he or she should be doing then surely these same MPs should be seeking the repeal of the 1980s union laws that prevent employees from doing like wise! I fear that some (on the right and Blairite left, I hasten to add) are protesting a little to much…

    1. outsider
      November 3, 2012

      Dear Jerry,
      Your parallel works only if the state and the government are owned by The Crown. But in the “efficient” part of the constitution, electors are the shareholders and are represented between elections by MPs. One of MPs’ functions is to agree or disagree with management decisions, although only the electors can normally throw the management out.
      The Prime Minister and other party leaders are leaders, not bosses in the normal sense. They can influence MPs through patronage, which leads to the intrinsic tension for MPs between representing the shareholders and gaining office for themselves.

    2. David Price
      November 3, 2012

      I don’t think that is a proper parallel, in the case of a company the management up to the board must represent the interests of the owners.

      In the case of Parliament the owners are the electorate who the MP’s are supposed to represent so the PM should be taking proper notice of every vote, particularly where the administration is a coalition. Unless democracy doesn’t apply in Parliament…

  8. Credible
    November 3, 2012

    So what you’re saying in a nutsell is that a vote should be binding if it is an issue you care about and you agree with the outcome, otherwise it doesn’t need to be.

    Whatever system is in place, the government make sure that it is very unlikely there will be any embarassing binding votes against them. That’s the nature of our ‘democracy’.

    On another issue. I have a polling card for the election of the police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley Police. I don’t have the faintest idea who the candidates are or what they stand for or what the implications of my vote would be. I could do some research, but as I have no expertise in policing I don’t see that I could make an informed decision on the best candidate. Should I just vote anyway?

    1. Credible
      November 3, 2012

      Just had a look at the police comissioner candidates. Non of them seems to know anything about policing. Should have put myself forward.

      1. Denis Cooper
        November 3, 2012

        Could you afford to lose the £5000 deposit?

        Or would you expect to get more than 5% of the votes?

        1. Credible
          November 4, 2012

          No and no

          Democracy only for the rich

  9. Denis Cooper
    November 3, 2012

    Shouldn’t this depend on the exact wording of the motion?

    If a motion only said:

    “This House … advises the government … ”

    that would obviously be very much weaker than:

    “This House … instructs the government … ”

    While somewhere in between:

    “This House … calls on the government … ”

    would be both a strong recommendation and a demand, but falling short of an outright instruction.

    Which was the wording used in the Reckless amendment:

    ‚ÄĚ… so calls on the government to strengthen its stance so that the next MFF (financial framework) is reduced in real terms‚ÄĚ.

    1. Alan Wheatley
      November 3, 2012

      “is” is an instruction.

    2. Alan Wheatley
      November 3, 2012

      I agree, it should depend on the wording of the motion.

      A vote is a vote. It matters not on the day of the week nor who tabled the motion.

  10. Neil Craig
    November 3, 2012

    Another example of why we need a writen constitution rather than relying on interpretations of precedent &/or whatever the establishment of the day desire.

  11. Leslie Singleton
    November 3, 2012

    I’m not sure I buy your comments about the difference between a small and a big turnout. To me, if it is a small turnout, at least those turning out are likely to care about, even dare I say know something about, the issue being voted on, which I see, certainly if there is whipping, as preferable to masses of MP’s being forced to vote. Besides, is there no concept of a quorum in these matters and if not why not? I am surprised at you that you should have felt the need to ask the whips’ advice on how to vote in the circumstances you describe.

  12. Acorn
    November 3, 2012

    “Non-Binding Resolutions” in the UN General Assembly or the US Congress are quite frequent. They are meant to express a position on something and are not intended to go forward as legislation or challenge the “executive”. But, they can signal the legislature’s position, should the executive wish to implement some policy.

    The UK parliament operates more like the UN, where only the UN Security Council (the government in our case), can initiate binding votes on anything that matters. This works in presidential systems but we have never progressed to separate and codify in a constitution; the role of the legislature and the executive. The Westminster Style parliament we gave the world; has passed its sell by date. It will remain a clubhouse for the paid lobby fodder.

    PS. JR, how many times have you been given the opportunity to vote, so, far, in this parliament? (not if you did or not. Trying to do a comparison with US House votes for the current Congress; now at 1549.

  13. Christopher Ekstrom
    November 3, 2012

    End times desperation has struck Cast Iron; if anyone (least of whom JR) believes Slippery intends genuine Tory policy to be advocated they are living in a fools paradise.

  14. David John Wilson
    November 3, 2012

    Quite simply to be binding any vote in parliament should require a quorum. This should require the abstentions to also be counted. However it is surely not unreasonable to expect at least a third of MPs to vote or register an abstention on any bill. An abstention should of course mean a willingness to accept the view of those actually voting and not be used for other reasons.

  15. Threshold
    November 3, 2012

    Quote: “If government were to lose a thursday vote by a large margin with more than half the House against, I think it then has to accept that was a binding vote after all.”

    I think that if more than half the House is against anything then that surely should be binding.

  16. Antisthenes
    November 3, 2012

    All votes in parliament (HoC) should indeed be binding. In theory an MP is a representative of his constituents and before any vote should sound out his constituents as to their wishes and vote accordingly. Because of the party and whip system there is no true democracy. I have said it before and I reiterate now true democracy will never be achieved until politicians are removed from decision making and government. Politicians and political parties sole role should be to try to influence the people like any vested interest. Government of the people for the people by the people is best served if the parliaments are populated by CRs (constituency representatives) who only articulated the wishes of their constituents and government was populated by administrators who governed only according to the wishes of the people.

  17. Prangwizard
    November 3, 2012

    I think I get some of what you say, and I confess to not fulling understanding the workings of parliament, but I admit to being worried about non-binding votes.
    It is surely open to abuse by government and it will just strengthen the belief among the electorate that MPs are powerless, and thus so are they; after all power is held mostly already by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, and MPs and Ministers cannot deliver change. How often are MPs asked to debate and vote on issues that the goverment has already implemented?
    Doesn’t parliament needs to be strengthened by making more votes count? This must surely serve to further weaken it. Wouldn’t more MPs take part in debates and vote if they knew they could make a difference?
    With the march of non-binding votes, and at the extremes, could an argument then be made to dissolve parliament. Didn’t we fight a civil war to establish controls over the executive?
    I remain puzzled and worried.

  18. Denis Cooper
    November 3, 2012

    If there can be a debate in backbench time on the issue of the closure of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, with only 60 MPs sufficiently interested to vote on the motion, why can’t there be a debate in backbench time on the much larger issue of QE and preferably with a motion ending with these words:

    “… and calls upon the present Chancellor to undertake that he will always seek approval by a vote in this House before he sends any further letter authorising the Bank of England to create new money.”

  19. Bert Young
    November 3, 2012

    I can’t see the point of a debate in the H of C that is followed by a vote if the outcome is ignored . Having a “1st. class” and “2nd.class” categorisation of business seems an idiotic way of allowing the resources of the country to be spent ; a Thursday in my book is just as significant as a Monday or Wednesday .

  20. uanime5
    November 3, 2012

    It may also be helpful if all votes on European and International matters are considered non-binding because it may be impossible for the Prime Minister to obtain the outcome Parliament desires. For example on EU treaties it may be impossible for the UK to negotiate something because they don’t have enough support for it.

    By contrast on domestic issues the Government has a complete control over domestic legislation so backbench results could be considered binding if supported by a sufficient number of MPs.

    In other news new proposals would make it harder to sue their employer if they were injured at work. Somehow I don’t think telling employees that if they get injured they have less chance of getting any compensation is going to motivate employees to do anything that might be dangerous.–scaled-down-8278089.html

    1. Denis Cooper
      November 3, 2012

      I’m sure that would indeed be very helpful for the advocates of “ever closer union”, but you seem to have forgotten that this is our sovereign national Parliament and EU treaties and laws have no legal force at all in this country other than the legal force that Parliament chooses to give them.

    2. outsider
      November 3, 2012

      Dear Uanime5,
      You may have noticed that Mr Redwood kicked up a big fuss about cuts in criminal injuries compensation, with some, albeit modest effect. So proposals can be modified by MPs who care.

  21. sm
    November 3, 2012

    Keep it simple i say. All parliament votes are binding and should be taken as mandatory until they are voted down.

    Is this just softening up so the public can be conditioned for the realization that the UK parliament not just people can just be ignored.

    Afterall this is where we are at?

    What is a europhile executive to do? Disband parliament or further debase it?

    Lets us leave directly with or without a referendum.

  22. Merlin
    November 3, 2012

    Your article John, may be of interest to yourself but my response is simple

    The more important something becomes the more complex it becomes

    I vote there are 2 possibilities YES or NO , end of comment.

    Just been to the UKIP autumn rally in Liverpool standing room only, please join us, John.

  23. Alan Wheatley
    November 3, 2012

    The UK position as regards European and International matters should be determined by Parliament. The practicality of an objective will influence policy. But it is pretty stupid to avoid having a policy because the future is uncertain.

    Giving a leader the freedom to “play it by ear”, especially when the leader’s views and intentions are not clearly know, can give rise to an unpalatable outcome.

  24. Alan Wheatley
    November 3, 2012

    The notion that the government can declare a vote to be non-binding on the basis described seems to me to be thoroughly undemocratic. What does Erskine May have to say on the matter?

    I see this as the government dictatorially arranging things to suit themselves. Rather than arguing their case they take the easy, lazy option of ignoring the result.

    1. Alan Wheatley
      November 3, 2012

      The 24th edition of Erskine May, published in 2011, at Chapter 21: The process of debate in the House of Commons by motion, question and decision.

  25. zorro
    November 4, 2012

    ‘John Major‚Äôs great decision to launch powerful Select Committees to question and advise government departments on policy and administration.’….

    I actually very much agree with John here. This is one good thing that Major did. It introduced overdue in-depth scrutiny of ministers and officials so that departmental strategy, performance and accountability could be publicly and effectively challenged.


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