Thoughts on whips and collective responsibility

Whipping, for the uninitiated, is the British term for party discipline. Essentially the party leadership decides if a vote is ‘whipped’ and if it is then all party representatives in the council or Parliament have to vote along the agreed line of the leadership. If they don’t then various forms of discipline are used from simple threats to taking away plum jobs including the extra payments they attract. There have been many tales of the extraordinary and terrible lengths some Whips (those ‘whipping’ their colleagues into voting along party lines) have taken to impose party discipline. This has led to some taking a view that the whipping system is ‘part of the problem’ and should be avoided. Perhaps, but it depends on what purpose you believe parties and elected representatives serve.

Having spent 8 years as a councillor in a party which constitutionally doesn’t allow whips I have some thoughts on this whole issue. I should note that I am no longer involved in party politics and these are just my personal reflections.

So on the matter of purpose – I don’t believe that parties and elected representatives (councillors, MPs, MEPs) are simply delegates of their electorate, party selectorate nor party machinery. Their role is to be representatives who use their best judgement and considered deliberation to come to decisions in the best interests of the collective good for their city, county or country. But of course parties stand for election on a platform, a manifesto of principles and policies. If elected then they are expected to deliver on those promises. So party discipline is understandable in furthering the cause of progressing the promises made to the electorate. There is a natural, unavoidable tension between this need to deliver the party’s platform versus the individual judgement of each representative from a party who may not have entirely agreed with the party’s electoral platform in the first place.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, party discipline such as through whips, is open to abuse – it can be used to impose ‘government business’ which is in no way a manifesto promise, it can also be used to protect a leader’s position. Whips are not infallible by any means though, parties with the most terrific whips offices still see rebellions happen.

Top-down leadership typified by whipping works in a crisis, for example it’s essential for the emergency services. But in considering the big issues facing public services a more collaborative approach is needed for success. Yet on the other hand no organisation nor political party works if it is merely a collection of individuals. There must be some sense of collective – the greater good, which can logically lead to some way of maintaining that collective through discipline. Tensions abound!

The intentions were good for the system I had to work with in the Green Party: Nobody could be forced to vote against their conscience, a party line couldn’t be imposed. The implication was that deliberation would lead to collective views. Indeed that was what we usually did in the Brighton & Hove Green Group of Councillors. While I was Leader of the Council, I was quite separately the Convenor of the Green Group which I felt to be an important and helpful distinction. I had a clear task to present key issues for the group’s deliberation, to convene colleagues over the big decisions. We would deliberate openly amongst colleagues before taking a vote on what our view was.

Unfortunately, while some felt that they should follow the group’s collective view even if they personally didn’t agree (which was my approach), some felt that the party’s constitutional position allowed them to always break the group’s collective position. Technically I’m sure this was allowed and we had a protocol so that people would let me know they were going to do this. However it made for appearances of a group that was divided and disagreed on too many issues.

Having pondered this at length I think we saw a clash between individualism and collectivism in how colleagues approached our decision-making. Indeed I think we are now seeing this played out in all political parties: Across the political spectrum I see those who feel their personal ideological and political purity trumps a collective party position in pretty much all circumstances. My personal view is that politics and public policy are inherently collective so the individualistic approach holds some irony. But I also understand the pressures to individualism that politicians face when lobby groups challenge each and every vote, towing a party’s collective view can be thankless especially if you don’t understand or agree with the party’s decision-making processes.

Despite the pressures of being without the simplicity of a whip to impose the party line we did manage to deliver over 85% of our manifesto promises in Brighton & Hove. All the same I’m sure one of the challenges of the next decade has to be find ways to avoid politics descending into self-indulgent individualism, to find models and tools for reinforcing the idea of the collective in decision-making and party discipline.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on whips and collective responsibility”

  1. I find this very interesting having been a councillor until recently too (and a group leader for a year) as my group – a Liberal Democrat one – didn’t have a whip either, and tried to come to decisions through consensus and group agreement. I recognise a lot of the issues you raise, especially those who’d sit through the whole process and then still disagree. (Though one of the biggest problems was people not turning up to group meetings, then disagreeing with what was agreed when they weren’t there)

    I think some of the problem comes from the terms ‘whip’ and ‘whipping’ covering a wide range of activities from the legendarily nefarious Commons whips a la Urquhart to the simple task of letting your group know what votes there are going to be at a meeting and what they mean. Maybe there needs to be a more explicit distinction made between whipping and co-ordination?

    1. Thanks for your comments Nick, very interesting. Yes it’s a real problem when people are not at the key discussion and then reserve right to disagree later. How to involve people meaningfully without always depending on in-person meetings is a challenge.

      Also true that co-ordination of votes and decisions is quite different from the so-called ‘nefarious’ whips!

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