There was more controversy in Irish politics last week when two Green party ministers failed to vote with the new government that they have just agreed to support. A Fianna Fail TD, Willie O’Dea, was annoyed that the new Green ministers got away with a slight reprimand, a gentle slap on the wrist, and were allowed to carry on with their roles. The Fine Gael leader warned his Ministers that they would be expelled for voting against the government. Is it right and necessary for elected TD’s to vote with their party, or is it a relic of a bygone era? The notion that party members “sit, act and vote” with the party dates back to the late 19th century and the “uncrowned king of Ireland” Charles Stewart Parnell.
Parnell needed a strong, disciplined party to try and gain leverage over the two large British parties. By taking the pledge that they would resign their seats if they failed to vote with the Home Rule party, it strengthened the leaders’ hand in negotiations and meant that the MPs were less susceptible to outside pressure or bribes. This tactic helped get a Home Rule Bill on the floor of the House of Commons, and it has been an accepted expectation of people elected to all parties in Ireland ever since. However, this results in a dilution of the power of a backbench TD’s vote. Instead of all votes counting as equal strength, the backbencher very often becomes mere “voting fodder” for the ministers in their party. It is only when a Bill might be defeated that a backbencher can try to leverage his vote to gain some influence. This is the reason why independents have secured influence in the Dail. They will demand projects and funds for their constituency in return for their vote.
What if, instead of the party whip and having to sit, act and vote with the party TD’s decided each piece of legislation on its own merits? Each vote for any Bill would have to be earned, not just taken for granted. Imagine if the legislators got busy with legislation. Each TD could scrutinize each piece of law, and if they agreed with it, they would vote for it, while if they disagreed, they would reject the Bill. Without any repercussions. Such a system would ensure that the laws being passed genuinely reflected the will of the people. It would significantly increase the likelihood of opposition TD’s being able to get legislation passed. It a Bill is well-thought-out and solves a problem, then it shouldn’t matter who initiated it. By removing the party whip, individual TD’s would be better able to represent the people who elected them. This is actually how parliament is supposed to work.
Political parties are supposed to represent the coming together of like-minded individuals. However, it is highly unlikely that all members agree with each other all the time. Therefore, instead of forcing people to take positions that they are uncomfortable with, if a political party allowed freedom for dissent, there are likely to be more and better ideas.
The power of the political party would be reduced, and parties would become more of a loose alliance than a disciplined machine.
Some people will argue that this is a recipe for chaos or stalemate for not getting anything done. Others might be worried that TD’s would come under intense pressure from their own constituents to oppose unpopular but necessary legislation. Yet isn’t that the essence of representative democracy. Not that a TD would vote the way of the mob but rather that people are wise enough to know what is in the country’s best interest. A TD would soon lose their seat if they were making merely populist decisions that were bad for the country. Utilize the talents of the elected TD’s. Trust the people to do the right thing.