Representative Delegates? How we should view the role of Liberal Democrat MPs

After furious debate from all parties on both sides of the floor, the House of Commons has voted in favour of Britain expanding its current military operations to cover both Iraq and Syria. To the shock of many within the Liberal Democrat party this week, Tim Farron announced that the parliamentary party will be backing the government’s proposal, stating that:

It is in my judgement that, on balance, the five tests I set out have been met as best they can at this moment, and I will therefore be voting in favour of extending the operations to allow airstrikes on ISIL in Syria.

The implications of this for the party and for the country will be debated over the coming weeks, months, or potentially years, to come. However, this article is not about the legal, moral, political or philosophical reasons to support/condemn this decision. This article is about the nature of the decision itself.

One thing that has become clear since the announcement of the party’s change in stance over the issue above, and the way such news was greeted, was how party members viewed the role of the Liberal Democrat’s remaining MPs. On both Twitter and Facebook there have been angry calls against and personal pleas to individual MPs to not back the proposal, stating how the vast majority of the party do not back military action in its current form. While it’s understood that both Twitter and Facebook are accumulative echo-chambers it raises an important question: Should Liberal Democrat MPs be seen as parliamentary representatives or as delegates for the wider Liberal Democrat membership?

In May the party lurched dramatically overnight from an established parliamentary entity of over 50 MPs with an experienced leadership to a handful of parliamentary representatives. This means that the Liberal Democrat’s parliamentary party can no longer function in the same way that the Conservatives and Labour parties do. The size and hierarchical structure of these two organisations, based on the carrot of promotion to [shadow] ministerial position and the stick of enforcing the whip no longer make sense to a group of (what are ultimately) electoral survivors. However the size of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party means it cannot act purely mouth-piece for the party membership either in the way that smaller parliamentary parties do (such as the Green Party and UKIP) and effectively act as glorified lobbyists.

Ultimately the question is about what sort of parliamentary party we want the Liberal Democrats to be. I would rather the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons act like a parliamentary party and not like a pressure group and, while that means I may not like every decision they will make, it means I will support that it’s their decision to make and not mine.


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