Whipped votes, free votes and representative democracy

In this post, I explained what representative democracy is:

In countries with representative democracy, we elect people to a legislative body to represent us. The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people’s interest, but not as their proxy representatives, that is not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances.

The key point here is that in countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, etc., elected officials act in the people’s interest, but not always according to their wishes. This means that in some instances, one’s MP (or congressperson, or representative, or MLA, etc.) will vote in a way that might run counter to prevailing opinion in his or her constituency because sometimes, what people want isn’t always the best way to proceed, or doesn’t reflect current circumstances, or might not be in the best interests of the country.

In parliamentary democracies, there is another factor at play. Party politics and party discipline are incredibly powerful forces in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent, the UK, much stronger factors than they are in the US, for example, where the parties don’t campaign on single national manifestos. While an MP is elected to represent their constituents, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, the vast majority of the time, how an MP votes on various issues will be determined by their party’s whip and not by what their constituents want. The reality is that an MP who regularly (or sometimes, even only once) votes against their party’s official position on a given issue will soon find themselves ostracized by the party, if not ejected from caucus completely. Indeed, in many ways, it is an act of political courage for an individual MP to defy their party and vote the way their constituents want, or according to their own conscience.

What this means is that if a party has an official position on a given issue, its MPs are expected to vote that way if the issue comes up for a vote in the legislature, even if majority opinion in an MP’s constituency differs. While this might seem wrong on the surface, one could counter-argue that voters in that constituency knew what the various parties’ positions were on each major issue, and so it would be expected that whoever they elect will vote according to that party’s position. Consequently, if majority opinion in a riding is against  a carbon tax, for example, one would expect that whichever party opposes implementing a carbon tax would get a majority of votes and their candidate elected.

Of course, reality isn’t as straight forward. Election campaigns are frequently dominated by only handful of key issues – one of which is almost always the economy, and so voters may well ignore party positions on minor or secondary issues, focusing instead on where they stand on the larger issues of the day. There is also the issue of voting systems to take into account. In the UK and Canada, which still use First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), the vagaries of this electoral system are well known. FPTP really only works properly (so to speak) if there are only two parties which are serious contenders. In jurisdictions that have three (or more) very competitive parties, FPTP breaks down. For example, if four parties are contesting for a seat in a given constituency, three of which clearly favour strong environmental protection measures while one opposes it, the pro-environment vote can end up being split three ways,  allowing the  candidate representing the less pro-environment party to win. Such scenarios are not infrequent. Most MPs in Canada and the UK are elected with less than 50% of the vote cast in their ridings. Some win their seats with only a third of the votes cast, some with even less. Is it fair in such cases to say that voters are endorsing the positions on key issues held by the winning candidate’s party?

My point here is to attempt to highlight the fact that how an MP votes on a given issue will be governed by party discipline and not prevailing public opinion in that member’s riding. This is called a “whipped vote” – where members of a party are compelled to vote a certain way or else risk being reprimanded or punished by their party. Most votes in the Canadian House of Commons are whipped votes. The opposite of a whipped vote is a free vote (in the UK, a “free vote” would be a one-line whip):

There are no rules or Standing Orders defining a “free vote” in the House of Commons nor is there any requirement that free votes be identified as such in the Journals. Simply defined, a free vote takes place when a party decides that, on a particular issue, its Members are not required to vote along party lines, or that the issue is not a matter of party policy and its Members may vote as they choose. A free vote may be allowed by one or more parties or it may be allowed by all parties. When all parties agree to a free vote, the recorded division may be called as a row-by-row vote or in the normal manner of a party vote. The decisions taken by the parties (as to whether or not a matter should be decided in a free vote) are not issues on which the Speaker can be asked to rule.

In the Canadian system of responsible government, free votes have a special relationship to the confidence convention. The principle underlying this convention is simply that the government must enjoy the support of the majority of Members of the House of Commons and be responsible for its actions to this elected body. The confidence convention holds that where a motion does not contain an explicitly worded condemnation of the government, or where the government has not declared a particular vote to be a question of confidence, or where there is no implicit vote of non-confidence (such as in a motion to adopt the Budget, the Address in Reply or the granting of supply), then the government is at liberty to interpret the result of the vote in any manner it wishes. Consequently, when under such conditions the government declares that it will treat a matter as a free vote, the convention holds that the defeat of the item does not amount to a vote of non-confidence in the government.

It is not clear when the first free vote was held in the House of Commons; however, since the 1946 free vote on milk subsidies, there have been several free votes on government business. For example, free votes were held on the issues of the selection of a national flag, capital punishment, abortion, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, constitutional amendments, and same-sex marriage. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Edition)

However, as C.E.S. Franks explains, even free votes often aren’t very free (PDF). The free votes on the issues of capital punishment and abortion were not free votes for the New Democratic Party. On both those issues the NDP has a clear, stated policy, and members were expected to toe the party line. The more recent vote on same-sex marriage (not mentioned in Franks’ article, which was published in 1992) in December 2006 was a free vote for the Conservatives and Liberals, but the NDP and Bloc Québécois whipped their vote.

Franks argues that:

Not only are free votes rare in Canada (and in other Westminster-style democracies), but their use has largely been restricted to matters of morality and conscience where the divisions cross party lines. To expect much greater use of free votes would be to demand massive changes in the processes of representation and decision making in the parliamentary system. It would change the system of responsibility and accountability: if members of Parliament rather than the government makes the decisions, then members rather than government should be held accountable. The opposition, in so far as its members had supported an item of business in a free vote, would no longer be in a position to oppose. The choices facing the electorate would be more blurred than at present.

Franks also points out that while voters frequently call for more independence for elected MPs, that they be more responsive to their constituents rather than the party, the reality is that more voters vote for a party and its leadership than they do for the local candidate representing that party.

Free votes certainly have their place in our political system, but I have to agree with Franks. It is not through increasing the number of free votes that we will strengthen the role of individual MPs – notably, backbenchers. I also agree with him that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if dissent was more generally tolerated by our political parties.

See also:

It’s my party

Related Posts:

Radical Centrist