The Chorus of the Backbench | Angus Gillan

“his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”

Edmund Burke, Speech to the Bristol Electors, 1774

 

It is crucial in our current political arena to support and encourage backbenchers to embrace their right to intellectual freedom. At this juncture in British political history where we contemplate a myriad of issues alongside Brexit, there is one similarity between the Conservative and Labour Parties: each is a broad church; from Leavers and Remainers; Corbynites to Blairites; Cameroons and Thatcherites; both major parties are vying internally to choose the definitive path to follow.

This has led to clear tensions, with each growing a veracious pack mentality; for example support for deselection or “mandatory re-selection” in Labour and driving out of ‘Blairites’/Moderates and the Conservative Party placing Brexit front and centre on the pedestal of ideological identity means that those who do not toe the majority line, e.g. Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, face deep criticism. As I write each party’s Parliamentary group is fragmented, with #ChuckChequers trending, to an innumerable number of MPs joining then quitting the Labour front bench ad infinitum.

It was no surprise then that the overcoming of tension, and a rally cry for unity, was a predominant message at Conservative Party Conference this year, illustrated by Brandon Lewis’ Welcome to Conference speech:

“like all families we occasionally have our differences, we won’t always agree, but the shared belief in delivering opportunity … will always bring us together”

Unity  is of course key to legislative success; the votes will always be counted. However, in order to create the legislation that will be successful, and to provide the inspirational vision the membership craves, it is imperative we hear a chorus of diverse opinion through the ranks of the backbenches, that we encourage the intellectual independence of thought in order to enrich our political system.

Firstly, it is important to note that, at the current time, backbenchers are not technically part of the Government; hence dissent and individual freedom is a privilege they are (seemingly) entitled to. Currently, Conservative backbenchers are members of the Party of governance, these backbenchers are then meant to support the Government’s pursuit of the manifesto; they are elected in their constituencies as representatives of the Party, thus are beholden to the Party’s promises. However, the Whip system (in its modern form) constrains MPs, clashing with their natural task of seeking to represent their community and nation above all and first. A backbencher can be sandwiched  between representing their constituency and following the ‘Party Line’. This is inherently an issue for both Party and MP, as failure to represent constituents due to the Whip may lose them support, and ultimately their seat, in turn weakening the government. Yet too vocal a campaign of dissent, too independent action, may bar a backbencher from undertaking a ministerial position due to tension from above; after all it is often said Dominic Raab was delayed in promotion as his discussion on Feminism annoyed the Prime Minister.

Backbenchers should therefore be able to act to a greater degree of autonomy from the Government without impingement for being who they are and believing what they believe for three key reasons:

  • Constituency representation:

To ensure the success of the Conservative Party we must put local communities first. In this regard it is not just advisable, it is wholly necessary to encourage backbenchers to take the concerns of the constituents to heart, on occasion this should supersede the Party obligation.

Such localisation is best detailed by Edmund Burke:

it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents.”

Taken in the strictest sense, Burke’s comment implies an MP should be from their constituency (itself an irony for him), but on a broader basis it drives home the message that country and community should rank first and foremost in an MP’s mind. A prominent proprietor of this skill is Johnny Mercer, vocal on social media and in person on the failings of aspects of the Party, or more precisely on issues of policy; see Johnny’s social media for an array of examples of him standing up for Veterans and the Armed Forces, as well may I add his defence of Universal Credit. The theme in his action is Mercer dedicates his job to Plymouth Moor View and the issues close to his constituents. His localised campaigning has seen him not only gain the seat in 2015, but increasing his vote share by 14.3% (7547 votes) in just two years. This demonstrates clearly the need for MPs to be hotwired into the fabric of their community.

  • Individual integrity:

MPs must be able to follow their convictions, both disagreeing with the Government and their constituents; it is a moral component of an MPs job description to act upon what they believe in their mind to be right at moments when they believe they have an idea and an answer. Once more we turn to Burke for inspiration where his constituents rejected his support of pro-Irish trade legislation, legislation which he supported due to the belief that said policy worked in their benefit economically; Burke thus highlights how independence is an intellectual pursuit for the benefit of constituents. As Burke made indisputably clear, an MP is not elected to be a mouth box of the community:

 

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.”

 

A prime example of this in practice is Jacob Reese-Mogg’s recollection at the University of Birmingham (2018), that often constituents will respect an MP even when they act against local opinion, on the premise that the MP shows conviction and is known to act through their career for the constituencies benefit.

 

  • Politics grounded in reality:

A throwaway line these days is that politicians are out of touch. We live in a time where institutional trust among the public is extremely low, hence if the Conservative Party is to thrive debate should be devolved through the ranks. Such a filter process of welcoming open debate counters the adage that power corrupts … which ultimately leads to abject failure. If points 1 and 2 are embraced, MPs are plugged into their voting bases they can relay reality to the Government. This also ensures those in Government cannot expect blind allegiance, one for safeguarding us from blindly walking into error and because for even the humblest of backbenchers could conceive a flagship policy.

As Alastair Campbell explores in his book Winners, to gain success, individuals in positions of authority should not surround themselves with ‘Yes Men’. In this vein of thought we must also ensure a Government/Cabinet does not constrain MPs so that they become automatons in service to their superiors.

Reassuringly, this was most recently advocated by Liz Truss and Bim Afolami with the Telegraph at Conservative Party Conference. Truss staunchly advocated intellectual freedom and noted how such activity can bring forward the winning policy we need to defeat our policy challenges.

As we started, let us finish:

 

his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”

 

Angus was a 2018 Council Candidate; he is an MA Politics and Contemporary History student at King’s College London, having studied Ancient History at the University of Birmingham, where he was a senior educational Representative. He has co-hosted Friday Night Politics on BurnFM; his previous work includes Secretary General of the United Nations Society and roles at L’Oréal Paris following winning Male Undergraduate of the Year 2017 and in the Foreign Office in Australia as part of the ‘Global Challenge 2018’.

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