"The travesty of parliament": Rhys Murphy tells why Prime Minister's Questions - in its current format - is unfit as a barometer for the competence of party leaders.Written by Redbrick on 29th March 2015
Cameron calls for ‘Three Line Whip’
Although the phrase ‘Party Whip’ might sound like an invitation to the exotic on a Saturday night, its true nature has terrifying implications to our democracy and the ...
Although the phrase 'Party Whip' might sound like an invitation to the exotic on a Saturday night, its true nature has terrifying implications to our democracy and the accountability of our Members of Parliament. Over the last few years our elected representatives have taken some bad press; most noticeably the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees and Labour over the Iraq War, however there are some huge flaws in the system of party politics that tend to put MPs between a rock and an angry electorate.
As far as public awareness goes, we know very little about the role of the Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin in comparison to characters such as Baroness Warsi, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, or even prominent MPs like Labour's Frank Field. On the surface the basic role of the Whip is to update Members of Parliament on their schedules in the Commons, with the underlined phrase 'Your attendance is absolutely essential' placed before every debate resulting in a vote. However the somewhat more shadowy task required of the Whip is to ensure that their party receives support, in the form of votes, from these backbenchers in key debates.
Now this is where the difficulty lies; there are situations in most Parliaments where the governing party or coalition may not be certain of achieving their majority in the Commons needed to pass or reform legislation. These situations can include divisive, polarising or sensitive issues such as gay rights, Europe or abortion laws, reneging on Election Pacts such as tuition fees or fundamental oppositions to wars such as Iraq. In these times the Whips will either double or triple underline the phrase 'Your attendance…' and so vary the consequences suffered by MPs who do not turn up or rebel against the party. Therefore a 'Three Line Whip', as used by David Cameron last Thursday against his European rebels is the most severe, requiring any holding government positions to resign and a possible expulsion from the party. The fact that so many Tory MPs (81) defied his orders last week is a testament to how divided the Conservative party is over membership of the European Union. The fact that 81 would rather resign government jobs or forgo career advancement to stick to their principles is incredible.
This is where the threat to our democracy lies; we elect our Members of Parliament to speak for us in Westminster – we do not just vote Conservative or Labour, we vote for the individual belonging to these parties. This in part ensures that we have the strongest characters available on our political scene. It is rare, in fact it is downright odd for an individual party member, MP or not, to wholly agree with every aspect of party policy, especially with unpredictable issues such as new wars, a failing Eurozone or no confidence motions. Therefore it is unreasonable to say that the MP should agree with his leadership on every issue or response, but not unreasonable to say they should broadly agree with the official policies of the Party they represent. This means that quite often, the way an MP votes is a balancing act, between their principles and the Government and also between their principles and the opinions of their constituents. The Party leadership can effectively block any prospect of a career and the public can end their career altogether. Ask anyone whether they believe that their MPs should vote with principle and they would undoubtedly agree with conviction.
However the truth is with today's political system it is not so simple, and with the Whips Office as the proverbial rock aforementioned, who can truly say that MPs are to blame?