Free votes: a matter of conscience?

January 19th, 2012

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It would seem that quite a lot of Tories aren’t that keen on gay people.  I know – I’m as shocked as you are.  Earlier this week, the Independent reported that over 100 Tory MPs are preparing to vote against the government’s plans to introduce full same-sex civil marriage, even more than the 81 who rebelled over Europe.  Yes folks – for Tory backbenchers gay marriage is an even greater threat to our civilization than the European Union.

But unlike the 81 rebels who defied David Cameron on Europe, those voting against him on gay marriage won’t really be rebels at all.  You see the government has promised a “free vote” on gay marriage, meaning that MPs (including ministers) can vote with their conscience.  This band of Tory right-wingers can commit their act of legislative gay-bashing without fear of reprisal from the whips, nor will they lose their jobs if they are ministers.

Free votes are employed on occasion by governments for several reasons.  The ever-knowledgeable folk at the House of Commons Library have produced a rather useful piece of research on free votes.  This identifies 107 House of Commons divisions (votes) since 1997 that have been free.  Of those, 48 related to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons which are (rightly in my view) unwhipped by convention.  Of the rest, about half are on issues like House of Lords reform and the hunting ban, which the government was at best lukewarm about.  The other half are these so-called “moral” issues:  gay rights, stem cell research and abortion.  These are deemed to be “votes of conscience”.

But what is it that makes these issues matters of conscience and morality while votes on other issues are not?  Why is a vote on gay marriage a “moral” issue while a vote to cut benefits from severely disabled people is not?  Under the last government the Labour leadership decreed that the vote which took us to war in Iraq, surely a decision with huge moral implications, should be whipped while votes on abortion were unwhipped.

What appears to define whether an issue is “moral” or not is whether religious groups take an interest.  In 2008 there were no less than thirteen free votes on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill after sustained pressure from religious lobbyists.  In particular many Catholic Labour MPs demanded to be allowed to vote against measures in this important piece of Labour legislation.

Now I have no problem with MPs defying their party whips.  In fact, I think we could do with quite a few more MPs who are prepared to do so.  But for governments of any colour to give license to certain MPs to vote with their conscience on some issues, usually on religious grounds, whilst denying that right to other MPs on different issues is wrong.  All of us have a sense of morality.  That sense of morality doesn’t come from ancient religious texts, it comes from within ourselves.  For a party to say, for example, that they will allow a free vote on abortion because it is an issue of conscience for MPs of faith is to bring religious privilege into the legislative process.  Just because someone claims faith does not mean their conscience or sense of morality should be held in higher regard than anyone elses.

It’s time to end the practise of “conscience” free votes.  If David Cameron really believes in gay marriage then he should have the courage to whip his MPs to vote for it.  And if some of his MPs don’t like it they can vote with their conscience anyway – they’ll just have to defy the whip to do it.

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