Saturday, March 21, 2009


I don't just like reading and commenting on politics, I am intrigued by political structures and strategies, so I occasionally find some time and read up on certain things.

I was refreshing my memory on the Whip system today and found some interesting stuff on the Whips on the internet that I did not know about before, and I recall this was one of the things about politics that it took me some time to understand. So for the benefit of those who do not know much about the Whip system, and for the critique from those who do, here is my attempt at a little informative article.

Whipping is the act undertaken by a political party whereby the leadership of that party indicates to its voting members how and when the party leadership wishes the member to vote.

The Whip will dictate to members how to vote, and act as enforcers of voting discipline. A Whip will use inducements and punishments in getting party members to vote, and will dispense the appropriate discipline where they see fit. The process is largely secretive and is a political party function, rather than a government function so much secrecy prevails as the business of the Whip is that of the Party, rather than the government.

The term Whip is sometimes also used to indicate a political parties endorsement of a candidate, with the phrase "withdraw the whip" is used to indicate when an MP is expelled from a party. (Though, in the case of an MP they retain their seat as they are elected by their constituents, but the party will run somebody else in that ward in the next election, and the expelled candidate will no longer be privy to party communications and instructions.)

In the UK the party that is in Government appoints a Chief Whip. It is the responsibility of the Chief Whip to ensure that the Government always has sufficient votes in the House to win a vote.

The Chief Whip to the Government is traditionally also appointed to the position Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury so as to allow the Chief Whip a seat in the Cabinet. Subsequent benefits of that position with the Treasury, the Chief Whip has official residence at 12 Downing Street (Though the office is currently working out of 9 Downing Street) and a Cabinet Ministers Salary.

Interestingly, there are only three official residences left in Downing Street.

The PM gets the first for being first Lord of the Treasury, recently the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets the second for being the Second Lord of the Treasury (though sometimes the residence is given to the second in command, or Deputy PM) and the last goes to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury who as we have established is the Chief Whip.

The Chief Whip speaks with massive influence and is said to have the voice of the Prime Minister, and their influence is often feared even by Cabinet members.

Whips in the House of Commons do not speak in debates, and they never speak to press or on appear on Radio or TV in the capacity of being a Whip, thus their roles remain very secretive.

The current Chief Whip is Nick Brown and the Deputy Chief Whip is Thomas McAvoy. There are a number of senior positions under the Chief Whip, all of whom are appointed to positions in the Treasury and/or to the Royal Household though they do not actually operate in any way under those positions, but act in their positions as Whips.

There is a similar system in place in the Lords, but they are appointed in a different way. They also sometimes do speak in the Lords in debates.

At the start of each week the Chief Whip will fax a letter to all members of the party to inform them of the schedule for the days ahead. The letters will always include the phrase "Your attendance is absolutely essential" next to each debate when there will be a vote. This sentence will always be underlined, either once, twice or three times depending on the consequences that will be imposed upon someone who does not turn up. Hence the phrases one-line whip, two-line (or double-line) whip and three-line whip. The direction for the vote is not included.

In the chamber the Whips will indicate to members of their party how they want them to vote by using hand signals. These signals, nor the letters sent each week are not recorded by Hansard as they are considered internal matters to the political parties. The Whips are protected by the privileges of the palaces of Westminster, and have been known to use threats, blackmail, intimidation and extortion to get MP's to vote how they wish them to. It is these tactics that are both often criticised and resented by MP's.

I have mentioned consequences, and these will vary depending on the MP and the importance attached to the vote. Disciplinary actions are actually normally agreed in advance of any transgressions. Allowances can be made for individuals who have long distances to travel, or who are away on official business and occasionally if the individual has political circumstances that need to be considered. The Whip is usually removed when the vote is on a matter on conscience or religion, however, this is happening less and less as time goes by. Theoretically anybody disregarding a three-line whip will have the Party Whip removed. (I think that makes sense.)

Any Government that is formed with a majority vote should win every vote under the Whip system, unless there is mass revolt. Such a revolt can be damaging to the party's leadership, and can be politically damaging if they require opposition votes.

The parties in opposition will run a Whip team to organise themselves in a similar fashion to the Government of the day. There is some co-operation between different parties Whips, sometimes by agreement and sometimes not there will be what has become known as pairing. This is where each MP has a pair, and then will not be required to attend if their pair is not on lower priority votes. This is why you will often see a sparsely attended Commons chamber on the TV as the Whips will have calculated the right number of people to be in attendance to support a debate. If the opposition was to bring in more votes, the Government Whip will look to their "pair" to also vote... thus cancelling it out. As a result, often only the least required number of MP's will attend.

Criticism of the whip system is often focused around MP's not voting using their own discretion or reasoning, and MP's under the system are frequently compared to sheep, for the way in which they are herded through the voting lobbies. There are stories that MP's have arrived in ambulances and that MP's have been called in off of their sick beds to vote and some died soon after.

Defenders of the Whip system cite the expectation voters have for parties to vote in certain ways, for example you would typically expect a Conservative MP to attend and vote for lower taxes, and with a Labour MP you would expect attendance and voting towards State provided social care. The argument being that the Whip system ensures that people who vote for the party rather than the candidate are well represented.

I hope you have found this interesting, and that I have got my facts right on the above. The Whips are a very important part of our system of politics, but because of their secretive nature and because they are feared by many they are not often talked about.


scunnert said...

Never understood the "three line whip" thingy. Thanks - very educational.

Cato said...

Agreed, Thanks Daniel. That taught me a lot of things I didn't know.

it's either banned or compulsory said...

"The Chief Whip to the Government is traditionally also appointed to the position Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury so as to allow the Chief Whip a seat in the Cabinet. "

Which is why these are the folks who will instigate implimentation of the Civic Contingencies Act.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the info, Daniel. I'm a bit of a political junkie myself, there's just so much information out's nice to stumble upon something useful once in a while.