by Rab Bruce’s Spider

According to rumour and gossip, several Tory MPs are secretly negotiating to cross the floor of the House of Commons and join Sir Keir (Knight of the Realm) Starmer’s Labour Party. Quite apart from the interesting thing this says about Sir Keir (Knight of the Realm) Starmer’s adherence to as many tory policies as possible, it reveals quite a lot about how unfit for purpose Westminster politics is. Some would argue, I am sure, that the current Labour Party is unfit for purpose as well, especially since Sir Keir (Knight of the Realm) and his closest allies have decreed that it is not the role of Labour MPs to join picket lines or support Trade Unions in strike action. Perhaps I missed a lesson in History class, but I thought that was the whole point of Labour. Not any more, it seems. Who would have guessed that a Knight of the Realm would have taken Labour so far to the Right that they are now seen as a perfectly viable home for disillusioned Tories? I can think of another Keir who must be birlin’ in his grave.

But what else does this rumour tell us? Despite official denials, there is no reason to believe it is untrue, and we’ve already seen MP Christian Wakeford cross the floor earlier this year, so it’s perfectly possible that others may follow his lead. But this gets to the heart of the problem with UK politics. Theoretically, of course, voters elect an individual to represent their constituency, and no doubt some voters still do place their vote in support of a specific individual, but the vast majority of voters look for Party first, and place their cross against whichever individual is representing that Party. That is partly down to the media landscape where national issues are beamed into households on a daily basis, and it may also be partly because MPs, although officially representing their constituents, are doing so at a UK-wide level. If voters like the politics or, sadly, the personality of a specific Party Leader, they will vote for anyone who is put up by that Leader’s Party.

MPs themselves will present themselves in the media either as representatives of their constituents, or as representatives of their Party depending on circumstances, but the reality is that you really can’t have it both ways. I’ve had experience of this myself some years back when I approached my then Labour MP regarding a proposed Bill which I feared would seriously impact the disabled community. He listened, assured me he understood, and promised to see what he could do. What he did was vote for the Bill because that was his Party’s policy. As far as I was able to ascertain at the time, he didn’t even bother raising any concerns during the debate. On that occasion, Party loyalty overrode a constituent’s concerns. Now, I am sure others will be able to point to situations where a local MP has acted in the best interests of his or her constituents’ concerns, but how many of them have done so in defiance of their Party’s whip? Not many.

So, if you accept the premise that an MP is elected because of the Party who chose them to stand in a particular constituency, then surely that MP should stand down if they decide they can no longer represent that Party. At this point, I should say that I believe this should apply no matter which Parties are involved in a switch of allegiance. Most voters vote for a Party first and foremost, so if the MP no longer wishes to represent that Party, it is a betrayal of the electorate to simply switch sides. I suppose that, in the case of Tories moving to Labour, it is hard to tell the difference between the Parties at the best of times, but the principle should still apply. However, it seems most MPs in this situation are more concerned with preserving their status, salary and pension rights than in actually observing the wishes of their constituents. The fact that the UK system allows them to do this shows how unfit for purpose it is. Any MP wishing to stop representing their Party should announce their intention to stand down, thus triggering a by-election. They can always stand as representatives of the Party they wish to move to and, quite frankly, in many English constituencies, switching to Labour at the moment might well see them re-elected anyway. That, though, is beside the point. The entire system makes a mockery of electoral democracy. Whether it be Tory MPs defecting to Labour, SNP MPs switching to Alba, or any other transfer of allegiance, MPs should not be permitted to assume that they have the ongoing support of those who elected them.

I will admit that one possible effect of forcing MPs to stand down if they become disillusioned might be to persuade them to stick with the Party they represented when elected. It would take some strength of character to take a principled stance, and perhaps that is asking too much of our political representatives. But then, if they feel that strongly, they can always vote against the Party whip on any issues they feel strongly about. That may well result in other problems for them, but it would certainly be a more principled stance than crossing the floor of the House of Commons, thus preserving their job. As things stand, the system benefits the MPs far more than it benefits the cause of democracy.