The UK General Election on 4 July 2024 is almost certain to result in a Labour landslide. The ruling Conservatives - who have had five Prime Ministers in the last decade – are predicted to get 66 MPs, down from the 376 elected at the last General Election in 2019. It will be a wipe-out and one that is richly deserved. 

For all its absurdities and distortions, the key virtue of First-Past-the-Post is that it allows disillusioned voters “to kick the bums out”. 

Trouble in the ranks

If Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, gets a towering majority next month – and sticks to his policy of smothering dissent in the Party – there will be trouble in the ranks.

In 1997 Tony Blair won by a landslide and believed he could walk on water. At the time I was a newly appointed PPS (Parliamentary Private Secretary) to Cabinet Minister, Gavin Strang.

Within months of the election, the new Government, flexing its muscles, whipped Labour MPs to vote for cuts in lone parent benefit. We had never been consulted about this. It was not what my constituency wanted so I voted against – one of 47 Labour MPs who rebelled. It was career ending.

The cuts went through but the scale of the rebellion shocked 10 Downing Street and the Treasury. The policy was quietly reversed the following year.

Squashing dissent

Writing in the UK’s Guardian last week, the celebrated diarist Chris Mullin reminds us of the dangers of overbearing Party leaders squashing dissent wherever they find it. 

The realisation that a single unwise tweet, however ancient, or even the mildest dissent from the official line, can be career-ending will have a chilling effect on debate within the party… all healthy governments need a degree of internal challenge. In governments of all parties, unwise or downright foolish initiatives are often quietly junked before they see the light of day as a result of threatened backbench rebellions…”

He goes on: 

“And who with the benefit of hindsight can say that the 139 Labour MPs (I was one) who rebelled over the government’s decision to help the US invade Iraq were wrong? Had he listened, Tony Blair’s reputation would not now be stained by the shadow of Iraq.”

I, too, voted against the war in Iraq. 

At the time Chris and I were members of a small Committee - elected by Labour MPs - who met Tony Blair weekly on Wednesdays to discuss the Government’s agenda. On 5 February 2003, I put forward a critical motion on the Government’s line on Iraq, backed by the late Tony Lloyd, but our concerns were dismissed.

Dissident and enforcer

In his marvellously entertaining diaries Chris writes about his experiences as a backbench MP and as a junior Minister in three Departments. He was famously a dissident but there were times when he, too, enforced the Government’s line.

I vividly remember Chris raging at me during a pre-meeting for Labour MPs on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. At the time he was a junior minister in the Department of the Environment responsible with Michael Meacher for shepherding the Bill through the Commons. He furiously demanded I withdraw an amendment I had tabled to the Bill to ban foxhunting. The amendment was backed by over 100 Labour MPs. The Clerks had assured me the amendment could happily sit within the CROW Bill and was procedurally in order.


I had been working for ages to get the Government to act on foxhunting and – along with the vast majority of Labour MPs - I was fed-up with Blair’s endless foot-dragging. Any number of Bills on foxhunting, promoted by private members, had foundered. It needed the Government itself to act. 

Chris – usually mild-mannered and even tempered - raged at the top of his voice that my amendment would scupper the Bill that Michael had been determinedly working on, in the teeth of opposition from Number 10. I didn’t believe for one moment that my amendment would kill the Bill. 

Chris insisted it had to be withdrawn immediately. Michael Meacher, in the chair, just looked on. 


I said I would withdraw my New Clause 5, which was scheduled for consideration at Report Stage when the Bill returned to the floor of the Commons, but on one condition - that the Government would announce from the Despatch Box that it would bring in its own Bill to ban foxhunting.

Which is what happened.

Had he not been a Government Minister at the time, Chris, whom I like very much, would have been proud of me.

The clash was a moment of high drama for me but the exchange didn't make it into Chris's Diary: "A View from the Foothills". Happily I got quite a few other mentions, but not the one that counted.

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Click "read more" below for CBC's Aaron Wherry's newsletter earlier today where he talks about dissent in the Canadian House of Commons. And Parliamentary reform.

ANALYSIS: After attacking the Speaker, would Poilievre consider parliamentary reform? 

Aaron Wherry, Senior Writer

While his party has made a cause célèbre out of its battle with the Speaker, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has periodically waxed poetic about the House of Commons — suggesting that its green upholstery is meant to symbolize the fields of the English countryside where commoners met centuries ago before the signing of the Magna Carta.

The actual origin of the House's colour scheme remains unclear.

The official guide to House procedure and practice says that, while the Senate's use of red is explained by that colour's connection to royalty, "the association of the colour green with the Commons is not so easily determined." A briefing note from the United Kingdom's Parliament states that the origin is "much less easy to explain" — though it does note that in the medieval period, "green was the colour of the pasture and the greenwood, of the village green used by all, in other words the colour of the countryman, the 'common' man."

Either way, Poilievre's fondness for such a romantic theory suggests at least a certain reverence for the institution.

FULL STORY: Speaker Fergus survives attempted ouster with support of Liberals, NDP

"To serve here, in the House of Commons, is an honour for every member. Each of us should be proud to be responsible for working on behalf of some 100,000 people," Poilievre told the House last October.

"At times, however, we forget the order in which power is exercised. We think that the prime minister is at the top, with the House of Commons below, and the people down at the very bottom, but the opposite is true. In a democracy, the people have the power. We serve the people, and the government serves parliamentarians."

Given his apparent respect for the House — perhaps even his apparent concern for the impartiality of the Speaker — it's fair to ask whether Poilievre would embrace the idea of a House of Commons that is stronger and more independent than it is now.

Critics of how the last Conservative government (of which Poilievre was a member) approached Parliament might laugh at the question. Stephen Harper's government became synonymous with omnibus legislation, using prorogation for political purposes, limiting debate and tightly controlling backbenchers and senators.

ANALYSIS: The Speaker is under attack again — maybe it's time for a more independent approach

But having come up through the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, Poilievre should be familiar with at least the rhetorical appeal of parliamentary reform.

"Canadians are justly proud of our heritage of responsible government," the Canadian Alliance platform stated in 2000. "But our parliamentary democracy is not all that it should be. Too much power is exercised by the prime minister instead of being shared by all our elected representatives. Excessive party discipline stifles open discussion and debate. Grassroots citizens and community groups feel that their opinions are not respected or heard.

"Poilievre was a supporter of and assistant to Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. Twenty-four years later, Poilievre became leader of the opposition himself on a platform that championed "freedom" and vowed to fire the "gatekeepers" who were apparently holding Canadians back.

What could a Conservative reform agenda look like?

In a way, Poilievre owes his own leadership to parliamentary reform. It was a mechanism in the Reform Act, a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong, that allowed Conservative MPs to trigger the caucus vote that toppled former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole in February 2022.

Chong's bill was intended to take one small step toward rebalancing the power dynamic between party leaders and backbench MPs. As successive generations of MPs and observers have lamented, Canadian party leaders exercise an enormous amount of power and control over their caucuses — even more than in comparable parliamentary democracies.

In 2017, Chong co-edited a book on parliamentary reform — Turning Parliament Inside Out — with Scott Simms, who was a Liberal MP at the time, and Kennedy Stewart, who was an NDP MP. In it, the three parliamentarians underlined the problem of excessive party discipline.

"Nothing moves in Ottawa" without the approval of party leaders, whips and their offices, they wrote. Those officials control promotions and committee assignments. They decide who gets to speak in the House and when and what they can say.

In the interests of strengthening Parliament (the theory goes), this kind of gatekeeping needs to be curtailed.

In that collection of essays, a half dozen MPs wrote about their experiences in the House and proposed remedies and improvements. At least two of those essays are particularly relevant now — the one written by Chong and another by Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who is now Poilievre's critic for democratic reform.

Cooper's focus was question period. Ironically, he thought the Speaker needed to be more assertive about enforcing decorum.

MORE: Will Trudeau end up regretting his decision to walk away from electoral reform?

"In particular," Cooper wrote, "naming and shaming members who behave badly and expelling persistent offenders would have a positive impact." 

But Cooper's most interesting suggestions related to the rules and mechanics of question period. Thirty-five seconds — the time allotted for each question and response — is not sufficient and allowing for more time might lead to more substantive and interesting exchanges, he wrote. And the use of lists — which allow party whips to dictate to the Speaker who will be asking questions each day — should be significantly cut back.

(Cooper also suggested a ban on clapping and — full disclosure — cited some of my own research on that vitally important topic.)

Chong's focus was the work of committees. At present, party leaders and whips are largely able to control who chairs each standing committee of the House and which members sit on which committees. They can also easily swap MPs in or out as they see fit.

Chong suggested that the House of Commons borrow from a series of reforms made in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In the "mother Parliament," the entire House elects committee chairs and each party caucus votes on committee membership through a secret ballot. Chong also suggested that the chairs be more fairly divided among the parties represented in the House.

What would Poilievre do?

All such reforms would, at least in theory, reduce the power of the executive branch by increasing the independence and potential power of individual MPs and Parliament — at least as long as MPs were willing to use that independence.

But a Conservative reform agenda wouldn't have to stop there.

Justin Trudeau's Liberal government created the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. Conservatives have complained that it is not sufficiently independent from government. Making NSICOP a full committee of Parliament would seem like an obvious next step for a future Conservative government to take.

At Kennedy Stewart's urging — and against the wishes of Harper's Conservative government — Parliament began accepting electronic petitions in 2015. For the sake of opening up Parliament and empowering citizens, MPs could adopt a mechanism that would allow petitions to trigger official debates in the House.

Poilievre, like every party leader before him, has any number of reasons to resist any changes that might reduce his ability to control the agenda. And his party's treatment of the Speaker would suggest not deference to Parliament but rather an impulse to pick fights, push limits and challenge established institutions.

Perhaps one could ask what the commoners of centuries ago would have wanted.

(Photo right: Pierre Pollievre with Sandra Cobena, the Conservative candidate for Newmarket-Aurora at the next Federal Election