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2:57pm on Wednesday, 1st February, 2017:

Representative Views


In the early days of parliamentary democracy, voters elected a Member of Parliament. Once elected, this man (it was always a man) could vote in the House of Commons pretty much according to his conscience, or, if he didn't have one, then whichever way whoever paid him the most wanted him to vote. He was, nevertheless, supposedly representing his constituency, so on occasion may have the dilemma of deciding whether to vote for what he wanted or for what his constituents wanted. As most parliamentary seats were safe, however, only rarely would this be an issue.

As the system developed, parliamentarians found that on some big issues they agreed with other parliamentarians and disagreed with others. They fell into voting as a bloc. An MP was prepared to vote in favour of some positions he didn't agree with much because others in his bloc would reciprocate by voting in favour of positions he cared about passionately. Thus, the party system came into being.

This presented MPs with a more common dilemma. Sometimes, the party would want a vote one way but the MP wanted to vote a different way. Should you vote with the party or with your conscience? The views of constituents would infrequently come into play regarding regional issues, or be used as an excuse for voting with conscience against party. Again, though, with most seats safe and the unsafe ones being determined by national rather than local politics, the views of the electorate were not particularly important. Put bluntly, if you vote the way the people who put you into power want you to vote, then you answer to your party's constituency selection committee, not to the electorate.

This is how it's been for decades - centuries, even. When their views are not in alignment, MPs have to decide whether to vote how they want or how their party wants. They don't particularly have to pay attention to what their electorate wants.

This is what makes today's Brexit vote so different. Suddenly, MPs have three pressures on them instead of the usual two. Their own conscience, their party and their electorate all have a say. If the MP wants to keep his or her (we now have female MPs) job, do they go against the will of their electorate and not get elected? Do they go against the will of their party and not get selected? Or do they go against their conscience and show themselves to be the kind of hypocritical, venal individual everyone believes politicians to be?

That's the thing about a referendum: suddenly not only does the electorate have a vote, it has a say.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).