Cracking the whip: the UK’s party control system

By: Tabitha Troughton

What to say about the UK’s whipping system, apart from the fact that one of Boris Johnson’s former aides has just made it the subject of what the Guardian describes as a ‘Jilly Cooper-esque satire’? My research for the Constitution Society, resulting in a report published this week, by contrast supports the conclusion that it is a toxic throw-back of a system, with fundamental and deleterious consequences for our MPs, our democracy, our country. A ‘joyous bonkbuster‘ the report is not. 

The whipping system sits at the heart of UK politics, yet runs on a code of omerta. It exists to make MPs vote as they are told to vote, and its tactics have included bullying, bribery and blackmail. It facilitated both the UK’s attack on Iraq and the triggering, without a plan, of Brexit’s Article 50. In the outside world it is little understood, and rarely discussed. Any challenges which surface in our media rapidly vanish: the allegations of blackmail, bullying and bribery which swirled around Johnson’s resignation, for example, have already been forgotten. This collective amnesia is not the least of the whipping system’s triumphs.

Cracking the Whip is one of the first to investigate in detail the structure, psychology, tactics, reach and effects of the UK’s whipping system. Estimable exceptions aside, it attempts to correct for the general failure to address the system itself. Consider Iraq: in this February’s mass media coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the attack, the whipping system went unmentioned. 

At the time, the scale of the anti-war protests, as everyone knew, had forced Blair’s government to grant a parliamentary vote on the issue. But the public still does not know why their MPs, all of whom represented parties and constituencies where the majority were united in opposition, then failed to vote to stop it. They are largely unaware that, behind the scenes, a sustained, professional operation had swung into action, with the sole purpose of ensuring that their elected representatives, in the two main parties, obeyed their party leaders and supported the war instead. 

Every political party system, it’s said, needs a form of party management. The report examines a selection; from Canada, where the post-colonial inheritance of the UK’s system is increasingly contested, to Germany, where party managers are elected by their fellow MPs, who themselves are protected from political coercion by the German constitution. Under German Basic Law, German MPs have the right to be ‘representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience’. No such right exists for the UK’s MPs. Party managers in the UK are not democratically elected, but appointed directly by their party leader.  And, of course, they are known as ‘whips’.

Investigating the whipping system can lead to one becoming inured to its terminology. Only when taking a step back do you realise how grotesque it is.  According to both former steelworker and Labour MP, Joe Ashton, and the veteran journalist Jeremy Paxman, most MPs are decent people. Both agree that ‘rotten apples’ are in the minority.  And yet, when these decent people are sent to the House of Commons, they find not only an entrenched, top-down culture of public-school style sexism, racism, bullying and ritual humiliation, but a system in which they are expected to accept that dozens of whips, across the main parties, will be whipping them into obeying the whip and their Chief Whip, on a weekly basis. 

As for how they are ‘whipped’ – the central tactics were always, according to A.C. Grayling, bullying, bribery and blackmail. There are inevitably MPs ready to swear that the system is simply performing the role of HR, or even pastoral care, or is necessary for the running of Parliament – none of which I found to be supported by the evidence. In the case of Iraq, the whips’ sustained campaign of intimidation, manipulation, misinformation or threats reportedly resulted in MPs voting in tears, or ‘drinking themselves stupid’ before going through the lobbies. The vote to trigger Article 50 was overseen by then government Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, who was later accused by one of his deputies of effectively having used blackmail and intimidation of MPs during his tenure. 

Over the years, whistle-blowers in both Conservative and Labour parties, as the report details, have bravely spoken out. MPs’ memoirs incautiously or defiantly give examples. I spoke to former MPs, ministers and whips, who, while understandably preferring to remain anonymous, confirmed these tactics are widely known, and emphasised that they are not confined to one party. But any public accusations are derideddenied or simply ignored. The whipping system has never been investigated, and no minister (all government whips have ministerial status) has yet been held accountable for it to the Ministerial Code.

The activities of the system extend to spying on fellow MPs, negative briefings given about dissenters to the press, the planting of Parliamentary questions and speeches, and backroom deals fixed up between the two main parties’ Chief Whips, in an accepted practice called ‘the usual channels’. Whips not only hold power over office allocation, promotion and trips abroad; they also decide who is allowed leave of absence: a group of female Conservative MPs spoke out last year against the demeaning and sexist treatment they were given by their whips when asking for leave. This system of control, few people realise, is replicated across the main parties in local government. And, increasingly, in the selection procedure for parliamentary candidates: with both Conservatives and Labour attempting to ensure that any new MP will already be whip compliant. A dearth of ideas, diversity, discussion, innovation and local accountability is the inevitable result. 

But there are alternatives. There are many criticisms of the House of Lords, antediluvian, unelected anomaly that it is. It is reportedly facing Boris Johnson’s plan to swamp it with new Conservatives peers, made to sign a prior agreement always to vote as instructed. In the meantime, and despite the presence of whips in the Lords, it continues to provide examples of apolitical, cross-party consensus, stifling the excesses of extremist governments, helped by the fact that deselection – a tactic of the whips – cannot apply there, and by the large number of independent peers, who currently hold the centre. 

Local councils are following suit, with Independent Groups (made up of Independent, Residents’ Association and Green councillors) who do not use the whip, and aim for consensus, rather than coercion. Councils and voters are increasingly keen on cross-party collaboration; less so, clearly, are the two main parties. The Labour National Executive Committee was reported to have blocked several power-sharing attempts, involving both Liberal Democrats and Greens, at council level after this May’s elections. Incredulous at the draconian levels of top-down control, and the rejection of popular local parliamentary candidates, increasing numbers of formerly Labour councillors are standing as independents instead.

Occasionally, as in the case of Liz Truss, the parliamentary whipping system backfires. Factions and ‘shadow-whipping‘ operations struggle in party wings. MPs still can, and do, rebel against the whip. The argument that since voters vote for parties, rather than individuals, whipping is necessary for party unity is the most compelling in its favour: nevertheless, party democracy is itself threatened by the potentially unlimited power of the prime ministerial role, and an increasingly dominant executive.

The constitutional implications are clear. The whipping system, the report finds, has stymied internal reform of Parliament and successfully undermined attempts to hold the executive more accountable. In its primary role as the leaderships’ enforcer, it supports, albeit temporary, elective dictatorships. Its ethos perpetuates an infantilised, oppositional two-party system and the imposition of a party unanimity which makes a mockery of representative democracy. 

Calls to abolish the whips altogether have a direct charm equal to their improbability. There are some small, bright sparks in the Westminster murk, including hints that Gavin Williamson may be investigated over claims of bribery when Chief Whip. In the meantime, MPs could start by refusing to use the terminology: since whips claim to be party managers, call them that. The removal of the system’s power over MPs’ daily lives, from offices to absences, and legal protection, mirroring Germany, for an MP’s right to vote with their conscience, would be aims MPs of all parties could agitate for. Otherwise, the increasing disempowerment of both voters and representatives simply opens the door further to hollow populism, or despairing disengagement, with, as we have seen, the darkest of potential outcomes. 

Tabitha Troughton.

Tabitha Troughton is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Society. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.