A matter of conscience

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.

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Comments

  • Quietzaple  On January 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    I understand that Islam has about 70 sects and some do not proscribe alcohol.

    I’ve shared flats with Muslims and know that some drink, and smoke contrary to the version of their faith they notionally adhere to.

    I think it important to correct false impressions about Muslims because prejudice against them has assumed a crypto racist element.

    • kerrymccarthy  On January 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm

      But that’s true of most religions, eg pre-marital sex, using contraception, homosexuality might all be proscribed but people do it.

      Someone on Twitter has made a good point, that Muslim MPs would/ should defer to wishes of their voters on issues like alcohol.

  • Cruella  On January 1, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Yes but if MPs deferred to the wishes of their voters on abortion all MPs would vote pro-choice. Personally I see abortion as a human rights matter (ditto gay rights, trans rights, etc) so I think it should be whipped by any party that considers themselves compassionate. One in 8 pregnancies worldwide ends in illegal abortion, at a cost of thousands of women’s lives.

    I also really don’t understand the idea that anti-choicers are voting based on their religion. No-one I have ever met believes that if I arrive at the pearly gates and say “I don’t believe in God, but I didn’t have an abortion because it was illegal”, they are going to let me in.

  • Steven J. Oram  On January 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Refreshing to read such behind the scenes/between the lines detail opened-up with such candour. As an idealist, I’m averse to the concept of MPs being whipped in a particular way, and pro the concept of all votes being votes of conscience; as you suggest, I believe there’s an ideological-ethical aspect to every political issue. The use of the ‘conscience clause’ solely as a response to tender religious sensibilities is not morally justified in my view, and serves to muddy the waters between religion and ethics, which are separate, albeit mutually informing and affective, arenas. If the clause should be invoked at all, it should be for those issues that provoke heated ethical debate, quite apart from religious considerations. Our ethical positions are part of the total network of views and beliefs that make us who we are, and they are no less sacrosanct for not being explicitly religious. Course, given the present political system and state of politics, the use of whips seems inevitable. In an ideal world, the use of whips would be unnecessary because MPs would be instinctively in accord with their party’s thinking. But how can just two (oh alright, three – but aren’t the Lib Dems a spent force now?) political parties make comfortable homes for the plurality of perspectives that exist in Britain today? Clearly, proportional representation would go some way to addressing this problem, facilitating more electorally viable parties – user-friendly homes to continue the metaphor – for potential MPs and voters alike.

  • Northern Heckler  On October 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    There is a sense I suppose in which all votes are free votes – you are a member of parliament individually – not merely a representative of the Labour Party – so any MP can choose to ignore the whip – but of course the moment you do, you effectively end your relationship with the party, and in many senses lose your mandate for membership – since you campaigned for election as a member of your party.

    I can’t agree though that a member should be guided by their consituents wishes in voting for issues against his or her moral beliefs – MPs are representatives – NOT delegates, they are empowered to use their judgement in making decisions in their constituents’ best interests – not merely to cast votes on their behalf.

    First time I’ve read your blog in ages Kerry – I will have to resurrect mine as well

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