How can a parliamentary democracy prevent parties from becoming too de facto powerful at the expense of the de jure independent MPs making up parliament?

In parliamentary systems, the government proposes legislation which parliament then approves or not. Potentially parliament can also initiate legislation. Usually the government "has a majority in parliament", meaning that the one or more parties making up the government have a majority of parliamentary seats.

In the September 2019 suspension of rebel Conservative MPs in the United Kingdom, 21 MPs were suspended from the party for not toeing the government line. Although some tried to run as independents or for another party, all who remain suspended lost their seat after the next election.

To me, this seems a somewhat chilling attack on the independence of parliament: follow the government line or you'll have a very high risk of losing your job at the next election. This applies both in district-based first-past-the-post systems, such as Canada and the UK have, or in party-list proportional-representation systems, such as are common in continental Europe.

How can a parliamentary democracy, in which (almost) all MPs effectively depend on the party infrastructure to keep their position, prevent parties (or party leaders) to become too powerful and threaten the independence of parliament, which is (at least in theory) meant to be sovereign?

  • Why do you think it is an attack, and not the normal process of party discipline?
    – Caleth
    Dec 17 '19 at 22:31
  • @Caleth What's the difference? A rhetorical question, I know, but if MPs unconditionally follow the party leader, this can (and has) destroy democracy.
    – gerrit
    Dec 17 '19 at 22:56
  • "destroy democracy" is not a very meaningful phrase..
    – pjc50
    Dec 17 '19 at 23:05
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    @pjc50 If majority of MPs blindly say yes to whatever the government proposes, parliament becomes an applause machine and a controlling organ in name only, such as is the case in many dictatorships.
    – gerrit
    Dec 18 '19 at 8:40
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    @Moo actually a number of MPs did run as independents (or Change candidates) in the 2019 election after having either left or been kicked from the party they were part of in the 2017 election. Every single one lost. That illustrates the lack of independence between MPs and Parties quite nicely I feel.
    – Jontia
    Dec 18 '19 at 10:26

In many democratic systems, MPs have the right to vote their conscience, but only at the expense of severing ties to the party that has a different opinion. Think it through:

  • In 2018, Tommy Atkins, MP for Littleton, defies the party leadership (PM or leader of the opposition) on an important, hard-fought vote.
  • In 2019 there are new elections, and Tommy Atkins wants to run again for Littleton. He tells the party members "gee, you won't hold that little vote against me, won't you? Put me on the party ticket, I'm such a great fellow."

Voting against a strong whip is similar to crossing the floor to sit as an independent. The MP has the right, and will remain an elected MP for the rest of the term.


Realistically, this is how it normally works. Whips have been strong since at least the middle of the 1800s: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN02829

The government party is assumed to have complete control over Parliamentary business, timing, and outcome of votes. This is called "strong" by the press, and generally people seem to think it's a desirable outcome.

The past couple of years it came unglued due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act: it was no longer possible to make any vote a confidence vote, so failure to pass legislation did not trigger new elections. We're now back to "normal" where the government can be confident of passing whatever it likes.

  • If that were true, then how is parliament any more useful than the applause machines of the former Soviet Union or the current People's Republic of China?
    – gerrit
    Dec 18 '19 at 8:41
  • Because you get to replace them every five(ish) years so they do have accountability Dec 18 '19 at 8:44
  • @gerrit because “Parliament” is made up of 650 MPs, about a dozen parties and several independents - while they all sit in the same chamber, it’s not a body with a single mind or will. If an candidate stands for a party at an election and is elected through party support and funds, they are expected to work for the party - otherwise they can stand as an independent on their own dime.
    – Moo
    Dec 18 '19 at 9:04
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    @gerrit as the Uk Supreme Court showed earlier this year, the British Prime Minister cannot do unlawful things. Yes, the majority party leader is powerful, but so is the head of the military but whether a military coup is imminent depends on the country and situation rather than the fact that the military simply exists. Your question here is way way way too broad to be answered because not all parliamentary systems are equal, and the checks and balances that work in one may not exist in another.
    – Moo
    Dec 18 '19 at 9:44
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    Yeah, the press can very much pack the Parliament by support for one side, and this is a serious problem.
    – pjc50
    Dec 18 '19 at 10:24

I don't know the UK system that well, but this problem (well, problem according to OP and me) exists in other systems as well.
In Israel, I can't say that the Knesset (our Parliament) has become an "applause machine", but MK (i.e. MP) independence has declined over the recent years (I can provide sources in Hebrew if asked), as the vast majority of legislative decisions is being made by the government ("minister's committee for legislation").

What does mitigate the problem? In here, the multi-party system helps. The government is formed by a coalition of parties, and even if each MK is 100% loyal to their party, the party doesn't have to be loyal to the coalition.

And "rogue" MKs can split from their party and run under a new party in the next elections (under some limitations).
For example, MK Orly Levy-Abuksis is a socialist-leaning MK that was in the Yisrael Beitenu party, split to form the new Gesher party, and joint the Labour (now Labour-Gesher) party, where it's easier for her to pursue her agenda.

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