Are MPs now delegates rather than representatives?

13th March 2017

One of the stock answers which a new Member of Parliament learns is that they are representatives not delegates.

Certain MPs will go further and invoke solemnly the words of Edmund Burke in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol (1774):

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

There is sense in this approach.

Electors can get rid of MPs at elections.  MPs can in the meantime vote as they wish.  There is thereby a pressure valve between the voters and the matters before a legislature.

If a MP goes against what his or her voters want then a new MP can be elected at the next election.

This valve is a feature of the UK’s “parliamentary democracy”.

And, in turn, “parliamentary democracy” is a principle of the (uncodified) British constitution.

Against this principle is now this relentless and alien doctrine of the referendum mandate.

The 2016 referendum on EU membership was not legally binding: MPs could have legislated for this but chose not to do so.  MPs instead chose for the Brexit referendum to have advisory power.

But it is now being treated by many MPs as having total power: things are being done in the name of the “mandate”.

Today in the House of Commons there were two votes on sensible amendments to the Article 50 notification bill.  These amendments had been inserted by the House of Lords.  But they were voted down by the majority for no good reason.

Perhaps there was a good reason which was not easy to detect.  Perhaps.

But it seems to me that many MPs who vote on Brexit are betraying – instead of serving – their constituents, when they sacrifice their judgment to their constituents.

Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe “parliamentary democracy” is better circumvented than observed.

That is a matter of opinion.

But is also a matter of principle: either “parliamentary democracy” is taken seriously as a principle or it is not.

And when a MP next reaches in his or her mind for the stock Burkean response to being asked about why they are not voting as their constituents would prefer on a particular issue, they will find the words are empty.

On Brexit, many MPs are voting as – and behaving like – delegates not representatives.


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40 thoughts on “Are MPs now delegates rather than representatives?”

  1. This is why referenda are generally a bad idea. But the EU referendum was clearly advertised as not being advisory but would be implemented, and MPs voted for it by 6 to 1. So they only have themselves to blame.

    1. It was advertised *in the Commons* as advisory, and the Government refused to accept Salmond’s amendment to introduce a threshold on precisely that basis. It is true that subsequently Cameron promised to take the advice – but untrue that MPs voted on the basis it was anythign other than advisory.

      1. if the referendum had been advertised as advisory I think about three people would have turned out to vote. It was very clear all along that this was a real referendum. All the caveats about percentages of over 50% or it being advisory, would only have made everything worse. I can’t think of anything that would undermine democracy more than holding a vote and ignoring the will of more than 50% of those who voted on what was in recent times a record turn-out.

        1. Exactly.

          But doesn’t that apply the other way around too? 48% being close to 52% and the Remain vote being the *second* largest number to vote for one thing in this country?

        2. Different issue. Your claim was that MPs voted for an “EU referendum [that] was clearly advertised as not being advisory but would be implemented”; that’s just not true.

          Mature direct democracies (eg Switzerland) use thresholds, for very good reasons. Our debacle last year, when voters changed their vote because they saw a straight banana in a supermarket, shows how good the reasons are.

          Why you believe that a government hell-bent on implementing a policy that a clear minority even of those who voted wouldn’t have voted for isn’t undermining democracy, and refusing the people’s elected representatives a say in it I’m not sure…

          1. If a binary national vote is held and 52% of those who vote for one of the options, there are no good outcomes that arise from not implementing their wish. However you do that, you still have a majority of the electorate who voted voting against what parliament has subsequently done.

            Take Muirfield golf club as an example. They had a two-thirds threshold on change. A majority voted to allow women to join but that majority was under the threshold so the motion did not pass. And here we are a year later with the vote re-run, because if a majority vote in favour of something then you pretty much have to do it.

            Best not to have referenda in the first place.

  2. This misses the real irony, beyond Burke: where MPs vote for Brexit against their own constituency. They are neither representatives nor delegates; just political zombies.

    1. as a Leaver I largely agree with this. Firstly, if an MP voted against the referendum then they have a clear case for voting with their conscience even if their constituents voted the other way. Secondly, if their constituents voted to remain then I can so no reason for them voting to pass article 50. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a constituency-based parliamentary system?

  3. … so pretty much everything you said on 17th June last year except Cameron was very clear the government would implement whatever option the electorate voted for.

  4. Parliament was told the referendum would be advisory, and it was on this basis that parliament voted to allow the referendum to be held.

    It was only when the ballot paper was published that it had morphed from an opinion poll to a binding and irrevocable decision.

  5. Very many MPs are concerned only with re-election next go round. They tremble at the idea of “defying” their constituents. Never mind if the vast majority of them are in no way informed or in some cases educated enough to make proper judgements on issues like, for instance, Brexit. Never mind if all it takes is a few misleading Daily Mail headlines or a slogan on the side of a bus to sway a voter. Mustn’t defy the vaunted will of the idiot people.

    1. If this were the case there would have been more Tory rebels. Those MPs from constituencies that voted Remain have not represented them at all.

      The bill would still have passed, but more opposition may have encouraged other members to support the sensible amendments.

      My MP has ‘defied his constituents’ to side with his party leader. He has probably calculated that in a rock solid Tory seat it won’t affect his re-election chances.

  6. I’m trying to find the best way to describe someone like my MP, a pro-Remain Conservative whose constituency voted Remain but who is nevertheless following the party line and voting against both his own better judgment and the expressed wishes of his constituents.

      1. I’m in the same position as above and yes, I’ve contacted my MP. His response was a boilerplate letter (I imagine I wasn’t the only person contacting him) stating that we shouldn’t go against the will of the people. It was like he’d been brainwashed.

  7. And yet… My own constituency was a marginal leave majority, slightly less than on a par with the country as a whole; the MP, Colonel Bob, apparently voted Leave.

    The neighbouring constituency, however, is the otherwise estimable Bob Neill’s constituency; it voted Remain. He was a Remainer; yet he is voting with the government. He is not acting as a representative of his contituency – or he’d be voting against. he is not actign as a delegate of his constituents – or he’d be voting against. He appears to be voting as a delegate of the country as a whole – which is emphatically not his job.

    1. This is Cameron’s betrayal of Parliamentary Democracy: organising a plebiscite which, being alien to our system of representative election, is being hi-jacked by opportunist idealogues. The vagueness of the Referendum question gives license to steer any course out of Europe, justification for the hardest of lines.

      The Referendum has supplanted normal rules of engagement, substituting mob rule. MP’s are being told that being delegate of the populace as a whole is a higher calling than being representative of their constituency. This is a third option to the Burkian dichotomy. It is a worse tribalism than our historic two-party system, as opponents are branded traitors.

      I am of the opinion that referenda are profoundly divisive; and much though I sympathise with the Scottish sense of alienation over Brexit, for this reason I would see a further, Scottish Referendum as a profound mistake.

  8. The 20th century mass party system ended the Burkian MP once and for all, except for the very few elected as independents. Their selectors, the local parties often after central vetting informal then formal, made sure they were answerable to party whips. They have been delegates of their party for a long time. But still, the party had to win a majority in parliament. Whereupon we had Prime Ministerial government. What the referendum has done is to override parliament itself as an institution forcing a majority of MPs who did not support Brexit, including the PM, to do as they are told. There has been a shift in sovereignty and in this sense parliament is no longer sovereign. Bring on a democratic constitution!

  9. Jack,
    You originally thought, I remember, that you would vote leave. If you had, and all had gone as it has, how would you now feel?

  10. The cost of silencing Farage has been the nation’s lobotomy. May as the eager surgeon. Tied to the bed, eye sockets and ice pick.

    1. Oh, if only he were silent. What happens to those in Remain seats with Remain MPs who voted to put their party first? Said MP is also on the Tory election expenses list and is in a marginal seat. Great, vote her out. But the seat is subject to Boundary Commission changes and we won’t get the chance. So, we have neither a representative nor a delegate.

  11. I think there is a perfectly respectable argument which a Remainer MP might adopt, as follows:

    “On the issue of Brexit, my judgement dictates that I should not vote to trigger Article 50. But there is a wider issue at stake – the potential for a widespread loss of confidence in democracy – if I fail to do so.”

    If there has been a Burkean “betrayal” by MPs, it was not in 2017. It was probably not even in 2015, when MPs voted by 6 to 1 in favour of a referendum. It was in earlier years when promises of a referendum were dangled in front of the electorate and then snatched away, fuelling an atmosphere which has led us to where we are today.

    1. The logic of your statement is that there should have been a 650-0 result for approval of the Bill.

      What MPs have failed to do is even attempt to shape the Brexit process itself. The narrow referendum result could have been interpreted differently had Cameron stayed on, or if Johnson had become Prime Minister instead of May.

      So MPs have essentially said that they’re OK with May’s Brexit, no matter what she does with it or what the final result is.

      Brexit, no matter the cost, and half the country utterly alienated.

      1. @Nicholas Stone

        I think you have slightly overstated the “logic” of my point. The argument I articulated in quotes above justifies a Remainer MP voted to trigger A50, but it does not compel such a vote. Reasons to vote against A50 include:

        i) not believing that there would be a widespread loss in confidence in democracy if A50 voted down; or
        ii) believing it, but taking the view that membership of the EU is so important that is justifies the risk to democracy itself; or
        iii) the knowledge that sufficient other MPs would pass the bill, thereby maintaining confidence in democracy, would allow a minority of MPs the comfort of voting No.

        I rather suspect that there were quite a few MPs (perhaps including Ken Clarke and the Lib Dems etc) who relied on point (iii) above.

        [Trivial point: You would never get 650 votes in favour, because the Speakers and (for different reasons) Sinn Fein MPs don’t vote.]

        1. I fully agree with your logic. I wrote similar things to my strongly Remain Conservative MP, Ed Vaizey, who kindly ignored my letter which took me all day to write!

  12. Local MP did online constituent survey to ask about current views on Brexit.

    This angered both the ‘Brexit means Brexit referendum’ crowd and the Burkian ‘MP’s are representatives’ crowd.

    It seems asking opinions or communicating with constituents is viewed as dangerous now. That’s not good for politics.

    1. Nothing less likely. Commentators should stick to commentating – that was the mistake Gove and Johnson made…

  13. What about the Lords? Unelected, its members without an umbilical cord connection to a constituency? So much freer than the Commons and designed as a chamber to act upon its sober judgment. We heard much about the Salisbury convention after the referendum – how the Tory manifesto commitment to safeguarding British interests in the single market should be one of a number of issues for the Lords to latch on to in opposing or at least amending the EU notification bill if the Brexiteers tried to impose hard terms on us. But no. They acquiesced. They did nothing.

    And to take but just one example of a Lord’s behaviour in this matter: Lord Finkelstein, (a high profile peer by virtue of his Times column), a Remainer, a decent man, a man convinced that Brexit, even a moderate version of it, will damage the country, votes for it, facilitates it, does exactly as Burke describes is necessary in order to attract the moniker “betrayer”, for exactly the reason he describes, sacrificing judgement for opinion. It is not necessary to be a Remainer in order to be horrified by this approach.

    This is not some simple question about inconsequential preferences. If ever there was a time to exercise judgment, this time was now. We are facing an extinction level event as first the Scots and inevitably the Northern Irish look to leave the UK in favour of a better Union, as they see it, let alone the high risk economic consequences of tearing up settled trade agreements or the diminution of rights.

    Parliament did not vote to give legal effect to the referendum result in passing legislation to enable it. Yet it has allowed the executive to redefine it in those terms. And in so doing, at a stroke, has undone the principle of representative democracy, has replaced representative function with delegate function, has replaced judgment with mere opinion.

  14. I have recently read or heard two MPs, one Conservative and one Labour, use the sacred Burkean principle to justify their position on Brexit to a local constituent or constituents where their vote was contrary to their constituents’ express wishes: one was Theresa May (Maidenhead), the other Andrew Smith (Oxford East). In both cases the constituents voted Remain and the MP voted Leave.

    1. Good point.

      But it’s worse than that. Both those MPs voted Remain, which meant they not only didn’t represent their constituents (insofar as they should consider their opinions – Oxford was fairly clear cut!), they even voted against what *they* thought would be damaging to the UK.

      1. The Burkean thesis requires a representative to support, according to their judgment, a “general good”. He or she looks beyond the constituency boundary. And so there is a very special horror to be reserved at the actions of a member who’s own constituency voted remain, who believes Brexit to be damaging and yet still supports it with reference to some notion of the “will of the people”, which in this case means 600,000 of those who actually turned up on the day out of the limited franchise permitted to participate, voting one way and not the other.

  15. The people have indeed spoken, and what they clearly and unequivocally said was “Oh, God, don’t ask me. Blimey, I dunno… Oh, oh, go on, leave. Maybe. I’m really not sure.”

    The outcome of the referendum has played out in the psychological realm as much as the legal one. The legally advisory nature of the (unhelpfully inconclusive) referendum has been sidelined and substituted in public discourse with a simpler, reality TV-style, winner-takes-all format. MPs, it seems, can no longer carry out the basic essence of their job in the face of cult-like pressure to conform and fear of nebulous “consequences”. Everyday debate has become increasingly polarised and coercive.

    How and why has this happened? One worrying possibility is that the world may be about to pass through another paroxysm of mass persuasion and delusion. Those who sense the public’s grasp on reality weakening are attempting to grab the reins of power. One can only hope that, as often seems to be the case, those hungriest for power prove most incompetent at wielding it. However, the combination of humanity’s latest technological innovations in persuasion and a rising appetite for authoritarianism in the face of uncertainty and change may mean that ineptitude and foolishness are not disqualifiers from continued political success – which in itself will further undermine the reputation of democracy.

  16. It strikes me that if ol’ Dave Cameron had kept to his convictions and shown some courage then we wouldn’t be in this scrap.

    He could’ve said, “52% isn’t a mandate, the refendum is only advisory, I think it’s a bad idea at the moment. Let’s think about it until the next election (or even have one early) and then see the result.”

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