Q&A: What are free votes, and why is Westminster talking about them?

Politicians have been pretty free and easy of late with promising free votes. So what are they?

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What is a free vote?

A free vote in Parliament is one in which MPs (or peers) are not asked to vote a certain way by their party. That is to say, the whips (the MPs whose job it is, for non-free votes, to make sure everyone in their party votes the same way) will not enforce a position.

What are they for?

Usually they are for decisions that are a matter of conscience.

Like?

High-profile ones include same-sex marriage, prisoners’ voting rights, the smoking ban, allowing TV cameras in parliament, and fox-hunting. Lots of votes relating to abortion law have been free votes.

Wait, why are we even talking about this?

Jeremy Corbyn’s brought them back into fashion. After a lot of back-and-forth, he allowed his MPs a free vote on air strikes in Syria because his party was so divided on the subject. He might be forced to do the same thing with a future vote on Trident renewal.

What’s the problem? It sounds very “new politics”, after all...

Well, you have a situation where the Labour leader makes a speech in favour of one side of the argument, and then is comprehensively undermined by his shadow foreign secretary who believes the opposite, and says so from the frontbench, as happened with Hilary Benn’s pro-air strikes speech. It was embarrassing for Corbyn.

So this kind of thing could happen again in future free votes?

Pretty much. Corbyn’s team believes it has made a deal with Benn to ensure his public discipline, in which he will not contradict the party line as decided by Corbyn from the frontbench. But what happens in a free vote? He will physically have to move to a bench further back and speak in his capacity as a free-voting Labour MP. This still amounts to a shadow cabinet member speaking against their leader, though, really.

Are the Tories less free and easy?

No. It’s not a free vote (it’s a referendum), but David Cameron has recently conceded that Tory ministers will be free to campaign in favour of Britain leaving the EU, contrary to the PM’s own position.

OK. You are free to read a different article now.

Thanks.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.