Jake Scott is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham and Editor of The Mallard.
After the 2019 Election, Boris Johnson made the remarkable statement in recognition of the fact that life-long Labour voters had lent the Conservative Party their votes.
Such an observation was so remarkable because it acknowledged two phenomena simultaneously. First, the deep tribalism that had marked the British party-political landscape for time immemorial. Second, the implicit contract made between the ‘Northern Red Wall’ voters and those Welsh and Midland seats that turned blue, and the Conservative Party, over a desire to finally ‘Get Brexit Done’.
The problem with contracts is their transience; once the parties have fulfilled their promises, the contract ends, and the parties part ways. The Northern voters have upheld their promise and given the Conservatives the opportunity they asked for; now the Conservatives must deliver.
This delivery is typically taken to be two main goals: deliver Brexit, and level-up the nation.
Each of these goals are commendable in themselves, and in many ways the Conservatives are already delivering on both. Llegally, Britain left the European Union on January 31, even if this process is in no way finished. Meanwhile Rishi Sunak has made risky but significant spending promises, almost definitely emboldened further by Johnson’s indications against austerity, to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, reliance on Westminster and central government is to only tell half the story. The Government could deliver its shiny projects, connecting Birmingham to London and save commuters fifteen minutes, but what will that really do for Red Wall voters? Even those areas of the West Midlands that voted Conservative for the first time in so long – Walsall, Dudley North, West Bromwich West – are largely disconnected from the actual economy of the Birmingham metropole that the ripple effects of HS2 will be practically negligible.
Trickle-down economics has been mostly disproven over the last thirty years – something that the Brexit vote revealed to us. ‘Delivering Brexit’ is now about so much more than simply leaving the European Union: wrapped up in that promise is the implicit acceptance of the failure of the neoliberal paradigm that has gutted communities and left many, such as Wrexham or Margate, feeling forgotten or ‘left behind’.
In this country, Members of Parliament typically act in line with Edmund Burke’s dictum of 1774, when he argued that: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.
This model, called the Trustee Model, has served to guide the behaviour of our elected representatives: country first, constituency second, and party third.
Of course, since the 1770s, Britain has changed in many ways, least of all in the emergence of the phenomenon of party politics. When Burke was speaking, he was entering Parliament as a largely independent-acting representative, beholden to his own judgement, the influence of his sponsors, and his electors – largely in that order. He would probably be wary of the emergence of parties as we now know them.
Therefore, I believe Burke’s warning ought to be held in reverse also: MPs owe their parties, not their industry only, but their judgement, and betrays, instead of serving the Party, if they sacrifice this judgement to Party opinion. In other words, should the MP find the interest of their constituents conflicts with the party whip, it might be prudent to vote against that whip.
MPs in the area now known as the Red Wall face a dilemma: their party, the Conservative Party, has a historical record of sacrificing local economies to the national one, and of prioritising Westminster over, well, every other constituency. The crux of the fulcrum is here, and Britain can go in one of two directions: it can continue on the direction of travel of the last few decades, and concentrate political and economic power in London further, which would only carry on the trends the Brexit vote rejected but at the national level; or it can take a different route, one often associated with ‘One Nationism’.
As I say, delivering this through shiny projects is one thing. The other is the corollary of representation: responsiveness. Voters need to feel that the disconnect of the pre-Brexit years is being undone, that their concerns are listened to, and their MPs will act on them. The key part of this is strong MPs.
The reason we have constituencies is not simply efficient and simple voting mechanisms; it is for responsiveness, that the distant halls of Westminster are brought closer to those with the power to fill them. Part of this responsiveness will be to more stridently resist the party whip where it goes against their constituents’ best interests.