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Cameron allows cabinet a free vote on EU referendum - other notable 'free votes'

Jonny Clark

5th January 2016

Happy New Year!

It will be announced today that David Cameron will allow his cabinet to vote freely during the EU In-Out referendum. It's an unusual but not overly surprising outcome, following closely on from Jeremy Corbyn allowing his own MPs to vote freely on the Parliamentary debate on air strikes in Syria. Perhaps we are about to see a new phase in British politics where Party Leaders are more inclined to allow members to vote as they wish on key topics. As the 'smaller' parties such as UKIP and the SNP rise in popularity it will be important for the leaders of the two main parties to keep as many of their own members on side to prevent splits and defections, so an occasional free vote (showing that the leader is 'listening' to his/her party) may become more common.

Free votes in Parliament, where members are allowed to vote with their conscience rather than purely via the defined party whip, are relatively rare. Often, they are allowed for votes on subjects which have very strong personal, religious or moral implications. I remember being very surprised by this when I was growing up - I thought it was the job of an MP to vote the way he or she felt their electorate wanted rather than any particular party line. Compare this to the US, where Representatives and Senators are more inclined to prioritise votes to appease stakeholders beyond their party (such as their potential voters or pressure groups).

Since 1997, there have been 143 free votes in Parliament - a tiny amount compared to all of the legislation that has been put through the two Houses. Of these, 30 of the votes applied to hunting or animal welfare, primarily about various amendments to the vote on banning the hunting of foxes with hounds. A further 20 of the free votes revolved around issues relating to laws on medical fertilisation procedures. Other common themes include changes to Parliamentary procedures (such as changes to the House of Lords or MPs pay and pensions) and changes to laws regarding sexuality. That doesn't leave many where MPs are allowed to vote purely as they see fit. That's not to say, of course, that MPs disagree with the Party line - they may agree almost 100% of the time.

Of course, a lack of a free vote does not mean an MP can not still vote with their conscience. However, such maverick MPs are often consigned to the back-benches and frequently looked over for promotion - after all, if they can't prove their loyalty to the Party how can they be a creditable leader? Unless you're Jeremy Corbyn, of course!

Jonny Clark

Jon Clark has been teaching economics and business studies for over 25 years primarily in the Further Education sector. Before joining tutor2u, he was a senior manager at South Cheshire College in Crewe.

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