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Artillery Row

Political parties should be broad churches, not sects

We should welcome diversity of opinion among MPs

Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP for Kingswood, had announced in November 2022 that he would stand down from the House of Commons at the following general election. It was surprising, therefore, when he announced last week that he was resigning his seat straightaway, before the scheduled second reading of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill.

As a former minister for energy and clean growth, and chair of the government’s Net Zero Review, he was unlikely to row in behind a measure to expand the exploitation of North Sea fossil fuel reserves. Rather than vote against his party, he chose to walk away immediately, leaving yet another challenging by-election for the government in a few weeks’ time.

Skidmore issued a strongly worded statement, lamenting the signal that the bill sent to the rest of the world that the government had stopped prioritising climate change. He could “no longer condone nor continue to support a government that is committed to a course of action that I know is wrong and will cause future harm”. The media fell on the story and proclaimed another fracture in the already-fissiparous Conservative parliamentary party. Of course Skidmore’s vehemence is unusual, but we really should not be surprised by diversity of opinion among MPs.

If you consider them from first principles, political parties are extraordinary organisations. In a nation of 67 million, it is a huge achievement to maintain two ideological groupings which, between them, can attract the votes of nearly 25½ million people — three-quarters of those who turned out to cast their ballot. Frame it in those terms, and it is obvious that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party will both have to encompass a wide range of views on any given subject.

Parties are used to dealing with internal dissent. Managing a parliamentary group is a complicated and nuanced task, but it relies on some shared underlying assumptions. We expect that most MPs in a party will agree on most issues, and that very few will differ from the party on a subject of fundamental importance to them.

Members of Parliament know the rules of this game. There are issues on which they passionately support the party, a great mass of policies with which they are comfortable, and every so often a measure they do not like. When that rare event happens, there are essentially two choices: you can grit your teeth and assent to the offending policy, or you explain to the whips, with regret, that you have to register your opposition.

None of this is revolutionary. Britain’s party system is enormously old: the Tories emerged during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679, opposing attempts to remove the King’s Roman Catholic brother from the line of succession; the Country Party, which was in favour of the exclusion, soon became known as Whigs, and transformed into the Liberal Party in 1859. The Labour Party, born from the trades union movement, supplanted the Liberals as the main anti-Conservative group in 1923 and have never looked back. So it is a well practised system.

The difficulty comes in conveying this to the media and thence to the public. It is an accepted law of British politics that the electorate does not like or vote for divided parties, so party leaders fear the appearance of division almost more than anything else. This is why they sometimes try to impose brutal discipline as a sign of strength.

Think of the way that New Labour managed its messaging and the public appearances of ministers and backbenchers. Downing Street controlled a “grid” of media announcements and interviews, presided over by the brooding and furious press secretary, Alastair Campbell. In the Commons, the Labour Party had traditionally elected its chief whip, but Tony Blair scrapped such a dangerous expression of democracy in 1995 and henceforth the top business manager was appointed by the party leader.

The urge to impose uniformity exists across the political spectrum, and has intensified as politics in general have become more polarised. We have seen this recently over the conflict in Gaza: those on the Left who agitate for a ceasefire have treated anyone who disagrees as effectively complicit in supposed “genocide”, with no room for nuance.

Equally, however, Sir Keir Starmer and his team have worked hard to marginalise or exclude relics of the Corbyn era, and last summer was rumoured to be looking at ways to prevent internal opponents from remaining as candidates. Most symbolically, Corbyn himself had the whip withdrawn in 2020, and last year Labour’s National Executive Committee confirmed that the former leader would not be an official candidate at the general election.

These attempts to make parliamentary groups disciplined and obedient sects are damaging, dangerous and doomed. Trying to create ideological chiaroscuro makes divisions deeper and more absolute, denying the opportunity for MPs to disagree agreeably, as former cabinet minister Rory Stewart describes it. Not only does this raise the overall temperature of debate, but it flies in the face of the basic reality discussed above.

Maintaining two ideological caucuses broad enough to contain all but 100 of the 650 MPs makes it essential to accept differences of opinion without pushing every policy dispute immediately to the brink of the nuclear option. It is simplistic and childish. But everyone has to work on this: MPs must be more open and tolerant, and communicate this attitude more persuasively; the media must wean itself off the quick fix of a story about “splits” or “rebellion”, and the electorate has to be grown-up, rather than judging simply who can crack the whip most savagely.

Skidmore would probably have walked anyway, given his strength of feeling. But a more tolerant and understanding view of the House of Commons would benefit everyone. It would allow MPs to think and talk more constructively, and it would turn down our political thermostat. Who knows, it might even go a little way to making better policy decisions in the long run. That really would be worth the effort.

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