Cracking the Whip: The UK’s Party Control System


After the fall of the Nazi regime, in 1949, in an attempt to ensure against the rise of future dictatorships, the new German constitution included the right of German MPs to be ‘representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience’. No such protection exists for the UK’s elected representatives. Instead, this report finds, at the heart of the UK parliament is a party control system which operates under a code of silence, or ‘omerta’, and which retains its potential for the bullying, bribery or blackmail of the country’s MPs. This is known as ‘the whipping system’. Its enforcers are the MPs known as ‘the whips’. In government, they have the status of ministers, and are paid as ministers but, despite numerous whistle-blowing testimonies from across decades, they have never been held accountable, even to the Ministerial Code. Under the system MPs are required to vote against their judgement or conscience, should these conflict with party policy, or the diktats of their party leader. The constitutional implications range from the creation of, albeit temporary, elective dictatorships, to the perpetuation of an oppositional two-party system and the imposition of a party unanimity which makes a mockery of representative democracy. This report exposes the tactics, psychological underpinnings and wider effects of the whipping system. It investigates the whipping system’s significant role behind two landmark parliamentary votes: the vote to attack Iraq, and the vote to trigger the process of leaving the European Union. It explores international and local alternatives, and concludes by arguing for continuing illumination, opposition, and change.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.