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Role of an MP: large number of independents in the Commons

Mike McCartney

12th April 2023

Incredibly the number of MPs without a party in the Commons equals the number of Lib Dems

I have been using the Easter break to do a bit of admin, and working through the pile of newspaper clippings I have accumulated that need an appropriate home.

In doing so, I came across an article about the number of MPs in the Commons that don't take the party whip, and this raises important questions about the role of an MP.

As a reminder, we can identify four main models of representation that we can place members of a legislative body in - in this case, Members of Parliament at Westminster (though the same models could be applied to the devolved bodies).

1. Delegate. Here an MP is expected to act in Parliament as if those who appointed them there would in and thereby accurately reflect their wishes indirectly.

2. Trustees. MPs are not expected to blindly do as their constitutes want, but to use their expertise and judgment, often on complex questions of policy or legislation. Sometimes called the Burkean model.

3. Party (or mandate). Most voters go to the polls knowing little about the actual candidates and instead vote for a party label. Thus MPs are expected to act in away that reflects the manifesto they campaigned on.

4. Mirror (or resemblance). Our elected representatives should reflect the social composition the region that elected them or perhaps the country at large and serve to reflect their interests.

Historically the UK has been viewed as the archetypal trustee style system, with a strong party/partisan influence. The US Congress is the classic example of the delegate model. But in recent years, there has been a great deal of evidence of MPs being increasingly independently minded on policy and shift, therefore, towards a US style system (though this perhaps should not be overstated, as MPs toe the party line the vast majority of the time).

I have blogged lots on the rebelliousness of MPs in the past. But this is aways in the context of MPs being within their respective parliamentary parties. What I haven't concentrated on is the number of MPs who have had the whip withdrawn. As the Guardian states:

"They are the joint fourth biggest contingent in the Commons, their total of 14 MPs the same as the Liberal Democrats’ tally. And they are certainly the most eclectic bunch, sharing just one thing among them: the lack of a parliamentary party.

Losing the whip was once a rare and usually brief event for MPs, the result of serious rebellion or significant personal misdeed. But this parliament has seen a bumper crop of “independent” MPs, as they are officially known."

The reason why there are so many whipless MPs? Interestingly, it is not because of policy divergence, but because so many have been suspected, or found to have been, guilty of breaking party rules. Therefore, the size of this grouping within the House of Commons does put a different spin on what an MP's role can be described as, since if they are no longer as seen to be officially within the parliamentary party* then how can they be part of the party/partisan model of representation?

*losing the party whip does not automatically mean MPs are ejected from the party itself.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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