The irony of the choice between conscience votes or party-whipping, is that neither of the options involve the public.
Conscience votes are occasions when MPs are allowed to vote on legislation the way they choose, rather than the way their party dictates. Votes are usually declared to be conscience issues when they involve strong moral choices and lifestyle philosophies. The declaration leaves it up to MPs to vote with their conscience.
Often though, they’re used when the Government senses a matter is so publicly divisive that it’s best not to have its Party brand aligned with any outcome. As an example of both factors in action, in New Zealand the vote on alcohol purchase age is a conscience vote.
In the UK, the issue of gay marriage has surfaced, prompted by Obama’s bold choice of it as a campaign issue in the US Presidential election. The Tories want the matter to be a conscience choice in Parliament. I suspect it’s a way of enabling the concept to be voted down in line with general public sentiment, while the senior leadership can profess to symbolic progressiveness.
Commenting on the subject of a conscience vote, Deputy PM and Liberal Nick Clegg revealed an intriguing antipathy to free will, or public sentiment: “It’s something I believe in… and I think we should now do this…”
Clegg doesn’t want a conscience vote on a subject he “believes in”. But isn’t that exactly the reason of a conscience vote? You get to vote for what you believe in, and others for what they believe in.
The point of a conscience vote is to differentiate the method by which Parliaments decide subjects that are matters of “belief”, from the usual matters decided on some sort of rational decision-making (leaving aside whether these rational matters exist).
If any democratic politician got to make happen the things they believed in, then that’s another sort of political system entirely.