Backbenchers, party dictatorship and public conscience

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“BACKBENCH MPs have opportunities available to scrutinise Government policy, but because of the procedure of the House and the stranglehold of the Government over the legislative system, these opportunities are mostly ineffectual”, so commented Professor de Smith on Constitutional and Administrative Law. However he goes on to delineate the effectiveness of backbench MPs which is enhanced in select committees.

Many MPs become frustrated because their opportunities to contribute significantly have dwindled. So long as the Government maintains majorities in the House, backbenchers will find great difficulties to participate effectively in decision making under the electoral system, according to which the winner can take almost everything and as a result the Executive have entirely in their hands the power of spending.

Gone are the days when backbenchers genuinely defied the Whip and allowed their conscience to dictate their actions. They were answerable to their constituents. They were at liberty to speak out their mind. It was this independence that gave the House its collective character and made it the most vital check on the Executive. Now, it is their party but not their conscience or their electors that determines their action.

If a backbencher flouts party discipline, he is heading towards his own downfall. No ticket will be made available to him. The only solution for him is to cross the floor, but that is not viewed with a good eye by the public. At the most he can sit as an independent MP but his political career can be much compromised unless the tide sweeps in his favour. Party loyalty has become the prime political virtue of a MP. He will support the Government even though it goes against his conscience.

Today, we find the virtual disappearance of the independence of MPs. The debate on the floor be- comes mere formality and the division which follows turns out a foregone outcome. It is what is decided within the party meeting that is of prime importance.

Party machine can bulldoze any dissent and can discipline MPs. Theoretically the opposition has the task of checking and controlling the Executive, but in former days the House as a whole had the task of doing it. With a good and comfortable majority, any Government can survive with good management. Opposition is often rebuked for shadow boxing and accused of ineffectiveness.

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