- 62% of the public agree that parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote.
- 55% of the public think MPs are personally responsible for their vote, regardless of party instruction.
- The public are undecided on whether the fact that an MP was elected on a party manifesto means they should follow party instructions.
The public think voting instructions should be public
Many votes in Parliament are ‘whipped’, meaning that the party gives MPs instructions on how to vote. This practice is both well known and secretive. While “everyone knows” parties instruct their MPs on how to vote, the instructions are not publicly released.
In late 2021, we worked with Opinium to ask the public some questions to inform our work around TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow. This polling shows that 62% of the public think parties should be public with how they instruct their MPs to vote. Only 8% disagree that this information should be public.
From our point of view, releasing this information would solve a practical problem. TheyWorkForYou makes comparisons between MPs and their party, but to do this it has to calculate what the instruction probably was, based on how most MPs voted. We don’t know what the whip’s instruction was, and so have to work harder to get a result that is inferring what is happening behind closed doors. We also do not have information about the strength of the instruction, and can’t say when a party has a mild preference or a strong opinion about how their MPs should vote.
This information is also important on a principled level. The role of whipped votes is part of the argument about the value of individual MP voting records, where one side argues that MPs don’t really make voting decisions, and so should not be judged individually. If you accept this argument that votes in Parliament are really decided by the party leadership, the democratic case for releasing these instructions is overwhelming.
Voters are unsure on the argument that parties should direct votes
The argument made to the anthropologist Emma Crewe (in her book Commons and Lords) by party whips was that they were performing a democratic function: the people elected the MPs on a party manifesto, and so MPs in Parliament should “scrutinise and improve” but not oppose government plans.
The public is split on how convincing this argument is. We asked if respondents agreed with the statement “MPs are elected on a party’s manifesto, and should vote as the party leadership instructs”. Only 24% agree with this statement, 35% disagree, with 41% neither agreeing or disagreeing. That only a small group outright agree with a philosophy that justifies how Parliament currently works is a problem, but the large group in the middle suggests that the views of the public might be more nuanced about what the role of parties should be in directing votes.
The answer to this question also varies by how people voted in the 2019 election. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters were more likely to move from ‘don’t know’ to ‘disagree’ with the idea that MPs should do as their party instructs, with 43% of Labour voters polled disagreeing and 51% of Liberal Democrat voters disagreeing. This might also reflect an idea that opposition MPs should be less bound by what they said in the last election.
Regardless of why they made the decision, the public think MPs are personally responsible for how they vote
Our polling also showed that the majority of the public (55%) believe that MPs are personally responsible for their vote, with only 15% disagreeing with the statement. This should sound a note of caution for MPs. While it being common practice to follow the instructions of the party is an explanation of how Parliament works, it is not universally accepted this should be the case, or that it removes personal responsibility for their votes in the eyes of the public.
This polling forms part of a wider series of questions that we hope to use to shape our work, and we will share more with you in the coming months.
Thanks to Opinium for providing free polling questions to charities as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign.
Header image: Tim Wielink on unsplash