UPDATED: 5 March 2018
This week twelve Members of Parliament resigned from their party, eleven of them forming the newly designated ‘The Independent Group.’ Other MPs had previously resigned the party’s whip in Parliament, mainly to vote contrary to the party’s stance on Brexit, as was the case with Frank Field (formerly Labour) and Stephen Lloyd (formerly Liberal Democrat). These resignations were notable not just for the sheer volume, but additionally because the MPs indicated that they were not prepared to bring their change of political allegiance back to their electors by contesting a by-election.
Does this really matter? There is no present legal requirement for a defecting MP to resign and contest a by-election, and historically MPs took advantage of this when they crossed the floor of the House. There are notable exceptions, the most recent of which took place in 2014 when Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless both resigned the Conservative whip to join UKIP. Both resigned their seats to fight and win by-elections in their respective constituencies. (One year later, only Carswell would actually succeed in holding his seat in a General Election).
The Independent Group however have defied this reasonable expectation, asserting that it would not be the right step to take. Among the reasons given are that they made their views clear when elected; that their principles have not changed even if their party has; and, slightly more bizarrely, that it would undemocratic to give the electorate the choice now.
Irrespective of whether one agrees or not with the motivations and aspirations of The Independent Group, their refusal to contest by-elections is utterly wrong. While many MPs command a significant personal vote, and some voters will cast their vote for a person rather than a party, the truth is that almost every MP owes their seat to their party. Their personal appeal may have added crucial votes that enabled them to defeat a strong opposition challenge, but their total number of votes was built upon loyal party voters, those deciding whom they wanted to govern the country, and those who reflected which party best represented their beliefs, priorities, and values.
From standing as a candidate myself, and working as a volunteer for several other local and national campaigns, I consider it breath-taking arrogance to say that the party label you were elected under is immaterial. Winning any electoral contest is incredibly hard work, and more often than not rests upon your party’s volunteers putting in long, uncomfortable, and thankless hours speaking to the electorate on behalf of their current or future candidate.
When you stand for any party you accept the discomfort that you won’t agree with 100% of your colleagues 100% of the time, in the reasonable expectation that by serving in a bigger group you are more likely to win power, bring your contribution, and make a difference. It is astonishing that anyone should accept the benefits that come with a party’s support, and conclude that how they achieved electoral success has no bearing on their subsequent actions.
It has been well said by others that the decision to leave a party is not taken lightly, and certainly some members of The Independent Group have had to bear the brunt of intolerable and unacceptable harassment (and worse). Even if I do not agree with the conclusions they have reached, I do not fault them at all for concluding they could not continue with their current parties.
Where I do find fault, and cannot excuse their actions, is their conclusion that nothing has changed before their electorate. As Honourable Members, they had the chance to do the honourable thing, and to make the case directly to their voters that their actions were justifiable and they deserved their ongoing confidence.
As they have refused to do so, it sadly seems that we cannot rely upon convention alone for our MPs to do what is right when they disavow the election platform they presented to the voters. To that end, I started a petition on the Parliamentary petition site, requesting that Parliament should legislate to make it mandatory for a recall petition to be called where an MP has resigned their party whip. If successful, this would empower constituents of defecting MPs to decide whether the MP should face a by-election, and honour the principle that MPs should reflect the will expressed by the last election held in their constituency.
The Petitions’ website rejected my petition, on the basis that they “cannot accept a new petition when [they] already have one about a very similar issue.” While the petition in question is much stronger than my version, requesting that MPs should be automatically subjected to a by-election where they resign the party whip, I think it is worth getting behind this petition so that the necessary debate is triggered in Parliament – we need 60,000 more signatures at the time I write this to require Parliament to debate the issue.
The new petition that you can sign is at this link: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/242193
With determination, we can send a loud and clear signal that MPs cannot take their voters for granted, and insist that the electorate is given the voice they are entitled to.