A parliamentary vote in which MPs and peers are free to vote according to their own conscience.
Most parliamentary business is ‘whipped’. Whips (who are also MPs or peers) use a variety of inducements and threats to ensure reluctant members of their party support (or oppose) items of legislation. If persuasion fails, whips will warn ‘rebel’ MPs that they might never be promoted or receive that much sought-after knighthood. If such 'regular' threats fail, whips may use murkier methods. Whips have been known, for example, to threaten exposé of a rebel’s private life. Ultimately a rebel MP can be expelled from their party. This ‘nuclear button’ option was pressed by Prime Minister John Major when a handful of Tory MPs repeatedly opposed his government’s European policy.
The bullying tactics of whips are unpopular with the public but they are often essential if a governing party is to deliver its manifesto promises.
Coercive tactics are thought inappropriate, however, when parliament is discussing issues of conscience. Prominent issues of conscience include abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty.
Modern Toryism's liberal drift on issues of conscience
In recent years the Conservative leadership’s refusal to grant its MPs a free vote on divisive issues caused major political problems. When William Hague insisted that all of his MPs vote to retain Section 28 (which prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools) Shaun Woodward defected from the Conservative benches and became a Labour MP. John Bercow resigned from Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow cabinet when he and the rest of the parliamentary Conservative Party were ordered to oppose Labour’s ‘gay adoption’ bill.
Since the political aggravation caused by ‘Woodward and Bercow’ the Conservative Party now fears whipping contentious moral issues. IDS allowed a free vote on Labour’s second attempt to repeal Section 28 and Michael Howard permitted a free vote on Labour’s Civil Partnerships Bill.
Sometimes ‘free votes’ aren’t always as transparent as they appear, however. Labour doesn’t have an official policy on abortion but pro-life Labour MPs testify to the enormous pressures that they face from party activists. Constituency Labour Parties assiduously screen out ‘wannabe MPs’ who fail to meet the demands of Labour’s rainbow coalition of pro-abortionists and gay rights activists. The weakness of Britain’s religious right and its reluctance to pursue entryism mean that the Conservative Party has never adopted pro-life, pro-family candidates on the scale seen in the USA.