Chris Skidmore MP is the MP for Kingswood
It has been long-standing custom and practice that MPs are elected as individual representatives to serve a full term, and that their mandate is an individual one. However, it cannot be denied that for the most part, voters cast their ballots with party identity firmly in mind, above and beyond the individual qualities of any given candidate.
Which is why, on 23 November, I will be introducing a Ten-Minute Rule Bill which would mandate that any Member of Parliament who decides to voluntarily change their political party during the course of a Parliament would be required to resign and fight a by-election.
I want to tackle the spectacle of a mandate-less political defection, where an MP can freely join another party whilst simultaneously thumbing their nose at the people who elected them, when they stood on another party’s manifesto. When Shaun Woodward defected to Labour in 1999, he was urged to resign his seat and stand for re-election as the Labour candidate.
Unsurprisingly, Woodward considered discretion the better part of valour, leading to accusations from Chris Mullin of his actions “discrediting the political process”. Tony Benn was even blunter:
“It is totally wrong for people to treat their constituents as just agents of their own will. If he's joined Labour fine and great, but he'd better prove that he's wanted in Parliament. I think that principle is one we've got to re-establish”.
This problem is one that is recognised in a number of other countries- all of whom operate parliamentary systems similar to our own. The lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, has a rule that disqualifies an MP from parliament if they change their party allegiance. The law was introduced as a constitutional amendment, when at a time of frequent coalition governments and political instability; there was a tendency for unscrupulous and ambitious legislators to switch parties to attempt to gain advancement. The rapid elevation to ministerial office of Quentin Davies following his defection to the Labour Party, and his subsequent peerage, demonstrates that our own politics are not immune to this temptation.
Of course the Indian law also mandates disqualification if a member votes against their party’s whip- which I believe would be a step too far. The idea must be to protect the democratic right of constituents to decide which party’s representative is their voice in parliament, but without giving political parties the power to effectively expel their MPs.
New Zealand introduced something similar with the Electoral Integrity Act in 1999, having seen a spate of unprincipled political defections- that in a finely balanced parliament had a disproportionate effect. And in another Commonwealth country, Canada, an almost identical bill to my own was debated only this month, following nine similar attempts to legislate since 1997. There is clearly a wider notion of democratic accountability at work here, which recognises a failure in existing parliamentary practice. Whilst we all admire the principle of representative democracy that Edmund Burke eloquently put forward in his address to the electors of Bristol, the fact remains that the nature of our politics has moved on considerably since 1774.
This bill is in part recognition that the public demand and expect a new relationship with their political representative. At a time when trust in politics and the political process are at an all time low, we have a responsibility to look at where our unwritten constitution can be updated, to better reflect what our constituents expect.