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House of Commons Hansard
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Members of Parliament (Change of Political Party Affiliation)
23 November 2011
Volume 536

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that any Member of Parliament who changes voluntarily his or her political party affiliation described on the ballot paper at the time he or she was elected is deemed to have vacated his or her seat; and for connected purposes.

This Bill seeks to ensure that any Member who decides to change parties—in other words, crosses the Floor or “defects”, should trigger an automatic by-election so that their constituents can have the final say on their decision. I realise that some Members may have hesitations about such a Bill. It would, after all, seek to overturn centuries of tradition that have allowed Members to change parties with little regard for their constituents’ opinion on the matter.

At the same time, the question of Members changing parties is not a new one. Former and current Members from all political parties have taken the decision to do so, including a former Prime Minister. Equally, former Members from every political party have previously called for a defecting MP to give their constituents the right to validate their decision. Let me be clear: I do not take issue with the right of Members to defect from parties. In an established democracy, we must value the freedom of individual Members to cross the Floor if they so wish. I can fully accept and understand that Members may, at times, no longer find themselves at one with the party they joined. I ask only that they give their constituents the same choice that they themselves have been able to make.

Nor do I wish to criticise any Member or former Member for the action they have taken, or the judgments they have made according to their own conscience. They will have to live with them. However, it is neither right nor fair that a constituent should live with that decision, often for many years, until a general election is called. According to the House of Commons Library there has never been a debate in the House on this issue. At a time when the public’s faith in our political system is at a low ebb, and when trust in politics remains broken, I believe that this is precisely the kind of topic that we should be debating.

If we asked any man or woman on the street the solution would be obvious: if an MP is elected for a certain party, only to decide to defect to another, it is only right that they should allow their constituents a say on their decision. That is the honest thing to do, and it is the right thing to do. It is easy to state the historical arguments against this Bill, mostly stemming from Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774. Burke argued that we are sent here as representatives, not delegates, and as such sit in the House as individuals, not bound by party constraint, but each free to choose how we best represent our constituents, even if that seems to be against their best interests.

The notion that constituents vote for their Members of Parliament as individuals to exercise their judgment on behalf of their constituents, and not to stand for the party ticket on which they were elected, may have been relevant in the 18th century, but that is no longer the case in the 21st century. We can no longer continue the charade that we are each elected solely as individuals. To do so is simply not to be speaking the same language as our constituents. It is an undeniable truth that the vast majority of constituents will vote for the party, with the Member the embodiment of the party locally.

Parties clearly do matter, otherwise there would be no need for a Member to change from one party to another. Such a Member may as well sit as an independent. Indeed, let those who wish to maintain the illusion, and believe that we are elected as sole individuals, stand as individuals, devoid of a party banner.

There are precedents in this House for a political defection to trigger a by-election. Bruce Douglas-Mann voluntarily triggered one in 1982, in the Mitcham and Morden constituency, when he left Labour for the Social Democratic party. He followed in footsteps of Dick Taverne, who in 1973 resigned from the Labour party, only to call a by-election and be re-elected under the banner of Democratic Labour. By-elections like these should be the rule, not the exception.

Nor would the Bill be the first to legislate on a Member of Parliament’s defection. Defection laws have been passed in India, providing that someone can be disqualified for voluntarily giving up

“membership of his original political party”.

Of 193 countries worldwide, 41 have laws about crossing the Floor. Indeed, in Canada, a Bill almost identical to my own was debated only this month.

I do not deny that this change in the law would raise other issues that would need to be investigated fully, but I would welcome the scrutiny that the House could provide by debating the merits and demerits of the Bill. For instance, the reason why I suggest that the Bill should apply only to Members who have voluntarily changed parties is to ensure that the withdrawal of the Whip would not affect a Member’s ability to remain as a representative. It is not the Bill’s intention to strengthen the party system, or to strengthen the control of any parliamentary party. It is intended only to strengthen the hand of our constituents. Loyalty to our constituents lies at the forefront of what we all, whichever political party we stand for, wish to achieve as Members of Parliament.

Edmund Burke once stated that he was a Member of Parliament, not the Member for Bristol. As a proud Bristolian, I am the Member for Kingswood first and a Member of Parliament second. We have a choice: we can stand by the arguments first formulated more than 200 years ago, noble though they are, or we can choose to face forwards, into the 21st century, and accept that we cannot go on as we have done. We must accept that the status quo cannot remain, and that we must seek to form a new relationship with our voters, our constituents—the men and women who put us here in the first place.

The central issue must be one of trust. At a time when the public want politicians to be more accountable, if a Member of this House decides to defect, it should lie with the voters and the constituents whether that Member should remain a Member of Parliament or not. We need to look beyond the confines of this Chamber, and ask ourselves what is so wrong with a Member who defects from one party to another asking their constituents’ opinion. What should any defecting MP be so afraid of? Who are we to turn our backs on our constituents—the voters who placed us here—without their assent? Without them we are nothing.

I end by paraphrasing the words of that other Bristol MP, Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his honesty, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices that to his ambition.”

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Edwina Currie had the bright idea of having equal numbers of men and women in the House by pairing constituencies and saying that the man who got the most votes and the woman who got the most votes each became a Member of Parliament. I asked her what would happen if someone went in for gender reassignment between one election and another, and she thought I was not being sufficiently serious.

When I first started taking an interest in politics, I do not think we had party labels on the ballot paper. I think it would not be a bad thing if we removed them and showed only candidates’ names and addresses. Incidentally, I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) would suggest that if I changed my address between one election and another I should have a by-election, because that was on the ballot paper as well.

I do not think many of us would get elected without parties, but the key point is that we have a duty to our constituents and to our party, and we have international obligations as well. In my view the trust comes from what we do, not from whether we decide to change our party. We are at present in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats include people who were Social Democrats. The Social Democrats, in the main, unless they were political virgins, came from the Labour party, so there has been significant moving around.

We could approach this matter from the point of view of narrow self-interest. Do we as the Conservatives, or we as the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, expect to get more people from the Labour party to come and join us, or do we expect to lose more people? If we expect to gain more people, which is what I hope we are going to do, we should not support the Bill. We should say, “Come across and perhaps we’ll see if we can look after you at the next election as well. It may mean changing your seat, as one or two Conservatives who switched to Labour did, but we can have a go.”

Then we come to Burke. Edmund Burke is quoted far too often. He bears the penalty of fighting his great campaign against Warren Hastings for five years, tying up Westminster Hall and stopping the visitors having a good look round. But we forget that having made his declaration of the duties of a Member of Parliament, at the next election he lost his seat. Losing the seat at the election is what such a Member should take the chance of doing.

We have had voluntary by-elections. Our right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) caused a by-election to say that he still agreed with what he had said at the previous election so could he be re-elected, and he was. We had the time when the Ulster Unionists, who do not seem to be present at the moment, had by-elections en masse for some reason that we have now forgotten. We ought to recognise that although my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood is absolutely right—there is no better historian in the House now than he—in saying that the matter ought to be debated, the idea that it should be the subject of a Bill that should be enacted is controvertible, and I would say that it is wrong.

The House should not be delayed by too many of the greater arguments, except of course if we wanted to return to the glory days. Was there not a time when if someone elected as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament was invited to become a Minister, a by-election had to be held? It would be a real test of popularity, especially if a reshuffle came, to make it a requirement that any Back Bencher who became a Minister had to fight a by-election, and anyone who stood at a general election as a Minister and succeeded, but then lost their ministerial position, should also be required to fight a by-election. If by-elections are a good idea, let us have more of them.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Skidmore, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Mr Robert Buckland, Zac Goldsmith, Mr Aidan Burley, Conor Burns, Gavin Williamson, Bob Stewart, John Healey, Mr Philip Hollobone, Mr Tom Clarke and Steve Brine present the Bill.

Chris Skidmore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March 2012 and to be printed (Bill 252).