Political parties do better in elections if they are united. Party loyalty is accordingly valued. A disunited party emits a bad smell to electors, internal dissension leads to splits if it goes too far. All this is a lesson emphatically taught by history, and is common knowledge.
It is however odd that party loyalty, or even the mere appearance of it, should be so prized. Cast an eye back to the 18th century when members of parliament were individually more independent, though formed into Whig and Tory factions. MPs whose seat depended on supporting the administration were known as “placemen” because they were specifically there as voting fodder. The rest, county and borough members, were in many cases effectively owners of the seats they occupied, and could not be compelled to support the government; their seats did not depend on it.
The idea of independent MPs who have to be individually persuaded of the merits of an administration’s proposals, is an attractive one. The idea of hundreds of backbenchers obediently voting as instructed by party whips, is highly unattractive. And yet it is the obedient, unquestioning, whipped-in party which, by projecting the impression of party unity, avoids electoral disadvantage.
All political parties are coalitions containing a spectrum of views, and they are generally kept together by a desire to win and keep power or—for individuals standing for election—of gaining and keeping a parliamentary seat. As a result, principles make rare appearances in the division lobbies.
One could cite many examples. A decade ago, during the national debate about proposals to make all citizens carry biometric identity cards, I wrote a pamphlet on behalf of the civil liberties organisation Liberty which was sent to all MPs and peers, arguing against the proposal. I received scores of replies in effect saying, “I agree with you but have to vote as required,” and adding that arguments of principle would not carry the day, only arguments saying identity cards would be too costly. Such is our world.
In most referendums, however, MPs are permitted by their party organisations to vote according to conscience. The result…