I’ve been musing on this blogpost for quite a while…. Last year we had another vote on abortion in Parliament, when Nadine Dorries put forward an amendment about ‘independent’ counselling. Votes on abortion are regarded as votes of conscience and therefore not, as a rule, whipped. MPs are free to vote whichever way their conscience dictates. In the last parliament there was a series of votes on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which provoked some debate as to what fell within the parameters of this convention (hybrid-embryos, stem cell research, etc) and the issue has also arisen on topics like euthanasia and the death penalty.
The Dorries amendment triggered discussion on Twitter at the time about what should be a free vote, and what should be regarded as a matter of conscience. Some of course are violently opposed to the whole concept of MPs being whipped to vote a particular way, and some say that surely all votes are issues of conscience, in that an MP is making a decision on what’s right and wrong? If a vote on abortion is a matter of conscience, how can a vote on sending UK troups into war not be? Or nuclear weapons?
In the examples I give above, apart from perhaps the death penalty (although there are Quakers, etc, where it is a strongly-held belief), the ‘conscience clause’ is basically about religion. There’s a very strong Catholic vote in the Commons, possibly more on the Labour side than on the Government benches, as well as many other MPs with strong religious beliefs. I’m not sure if any surveys have been done on the religious composition of the Commons, but I think there’s a pretty good chance that there are more people of faith (ie practising rather than just inherited) in Parliament than in the population at large. There are many senior Labour MPs, for example, in the Christian Socialist Movement. It’s an understandable phenomenon, that someone’s faith would lead them into politics.
One thing that hasn’t yet been tested by Parliament is what impact the growing diversity in the Commons will have on ‘conscience’ votes. We now have quite a few Muslim MPs, whose faith prohibits gambling and alcohol. Are they to be allowed to invoke the conscience clause when it comes to votes on these topics? The answer seems to be no, although I don’t think they’ve attempted it. I don’t recall them doing so when we had the vote on super-casinos in the 2005-10 parliament, for example. (There were a lot of us rather unhappy about that vote, only being persuaded by vocal last-ditch lobbying from our Blackpool colleagues that a super-casino was needed to rescue the town, and then of course the decision was made to award it to Manchester… I for one was rather pleased when Gordon got in and scrapped the plans).
And if we accept that the issue of what constitutes a vote of conscience is up for negotiation, how do we justify it being reserved for matters of religious conscience? If as a vegan I think meat eating is unethical, aren’t I as entitled to invoke my conscience on, say, a vote against increased subsidies for beef farmers as a Catholic would be against, say, state-funded provision of abortion counselling?
Basically what it comes down to is that free votes on matters of conscience aren’t really about conscience, they’re about political management. The whips know they can’t force (most) Catholics to vote for abortion, that they’d have a major rebellion on their hands, and so the free vote convention has developed. This is why the Government whips ended up allowing a free vote on wild animals in circuses last year. Not because animal welfare is seen as a conscience issue, but because they knew if there was a vote they’d lose – which didn’t stop them until very late in the day trying to whip the troops, before caving in on the free vote and then misleading the troops into thinking that they were going to implement a ban so that it wasn’t actually pushed to the vote – but that’s another story. There’s also a separate debate about whether backbench business – which this was – should always be a free vote, but again, that’s another topic for another day.