Democracy and the Whip system

The whips department is made up of MP’s that have been appointed by the party leader in parliament. They maintain party unity on key legislative divisions (votes). These whips receive a ministerial salary and both the government and opposition employ them from their respective parties.

Without a whip, party policies would be extremely hard to push through. For governments, pursuing their programme in parliament requires a majority and this would be very difficult to achieve with only a 12 majority in the Commons, without party unity. In a recent vote on Welfare reform, two Conservative MP’s dissented, cutting their majority to 10.

Now with every issue up for debate, not all members ‘toe the line’, in other words not all members obey their leader’s position. In order to maintain unity a mixture of incentives and punishments, carrots and sticks are used.

There are various methods in luring an MP into voting for a certain issue in a certain way in parliament; some of these methods are listed below:


Carrots (Rewards) Sticks (Punishments)
A holiday abroad (aka a fact finding mission!) Placing the MP on a boring committee
A hint of a ministerial position with a ministerial salary plus benefits Creating problems for the MP with their local branch, possibly leading to reselection at the next election
A spacious office! In extreme circumstances, threatening to sack them from the party, known as ‘removing the whip’

Every week the whips department issues a list that goes out informing MPs and Lords of any upcoming parliamentary votes. This list is known as ‘The Whip’. The most important votes are underlined. The more significant a debate the more it is underlined. The most important of which are denoted by a ‘three line whip’. ‘Three line whips’ are usually crucial events, and if an individual within the party refuses to obey the ‘Three line whip’ they can be suspended from the party and this is known as removing the whip. A recent example of MPs defying the whip is when three mayoral candidates: Sadiq Khan, Dianne Abbott and David Lammy all opposed the welfare bill (20th July 2015) despite Labours decision to accept government plans. However, their disobedience did not lead to major repercussions as the party was split on the issue and the acting leader Harriet Harman lacked authority. George Galloway, however, had the whip taken away after voting against his party and publicly denouncing the then leadership under Blair.

Many believe the whip system is antiquated and discredited. It makes party members mere delegates for their party. Some MP’s have made a name being ‘mavericks’, tolerated by their parties. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, rebelled against his party on over 500 divisions! The problem for his leadership is how can he now demand party unity when he never chose to obey Labour leaders since 1983.

Rabia Nishat

Here is a good piece from Daily Politics explaining the party whips system

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