The Usual Channels

Tabitha Troughton

Last year, as Boris Johnson hung onto power, his party enforcers were publicly accused of blackmailing and intimidating MPs. These accusations were not in the Partygate inquiry’s remit, but if deliberately misleading Parliament ‘goes to the very heart of our democracy’, as the Committee for Privileges says in its report, then so does the fact that our MPs can be bullied, bribed or blackmailed by their party leaderships. Johnson shrugged the claims off: ‘I’ve seen no evidence, heard no evidence, to support any of those allegations.’ But the lack of any inquiry and subsequent slamming of doors are symptomatic of a party control system that sits at the heart of British politics but is rarely discussed: the whip.

The purpose of the system is to make MPs vote the way their leaders tell them. It facilitated both the UK’s attack on Iraq and the triggering, without a plan, of Article 50 to withdraw from the EU. But in the outside world the whip is little understood, and any challenges which surface in the media rapidly vanish. A collective amnesia is not the least of the system’s triumphs.

The scale of the anti-war protests in 2003 forced Tony Blair’s government to grant a parliamentary vote on the invasion of Iraq, but most MPs failed to vote against it. Behind the scenes, a sustained, professional operation had swung into action to ensure that they obeyed their party leaders and supported the war. Some MPs were reduced to tears by the whips’ campaign of intimidation, manipulation, misinformation and threats; others resorted to ‘drinking themselves stupid’ before going through the aye lobby.

The government’s chief whip during the vote to trigger Article 50 was Gavin Williamson, who was later accused by one of his deputies of having used blackmail and intimidation during his tenure.

Every political party system, it’s said, needs a form of party management. Canada inherited the UK’s system but it’s being contested there. In Germany, party managers are elected by their fellow MPs, who are protected from political coercion by the constitution. Under Germany’s Basic Law, MPs are ‘representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience’. There is no such right for British MPs. Party managers in the UK are not democratically elected but appointed directly by their party leader. And they aren’t called ‘whips’ for nothing.

Both the political journalist Jeremy Paxman and the former steelworker and Labour MP Joe Ashton have said that most MPs are ‘decent people’. 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 sexism, racism, bullying and ritual humiliation, but a system in which they are expected to accept that dozens of their colleagues will be ‘whipping’ them into toeing the line.

There are MPs ready to swear that the system is simply performing the role of HR, or even pastoral care, or that it’s necessary for the running of Parliament, but these claims were not supported by the evidence I found while researching the system for a new Constitution Society report.

Over the years, whistleblowers in both the Conservative and Labour parties have spoken out. MPs’ memoirs give incautious or defiant examples. I spoke to former MPs, ministers and whips, who, while understandably preferring to remain anonymous, confirmed that these tactics are widely known and not confined to one party. But public accusations are derided, denied or ignored. The system has never been investigated, and no whip has yet been held accountable for practices that breach the ministerial code (all government whips have ministerial status).

Whips’ activities extend to spying on fellow MPs, giving negative briefings about dissenters to the press, planting Parliamentary questions and speeches, and, in the two main parties, fixing up backroom deals with their opposite number, an accepted practice known as ‘the usual channels’. Whips don’t only hold power over office allocation, promotion and trips abroad; they also decide who is allowed leave of absence: a group of women Conservative MPs spoke out last year against the demeaning and sexist treatment they received from the whips when asking for time off.

This system of control is replicated across the main parties in local government and, increasingly, in the selection procedure for parliamentary candidates: both the Conservatives and Labour are trying 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’s plenty wrong with the House of Lords, antediluvian, unelected anomaly that it is. Yet, despite the presence of whips in the Lords, it continues to provide examples of non-partisan, cross-party consensus, stifling the excesses of extremist governments, helped by the fact that deselection – a tactic of the Commons whips – cannot apply there, and by the large number of independent peers.

Occasionally, as Liz Truss found, the parliamentary whipping system backfires. There are ‘shadow-whipping’ operations in the parties’ factional wings. MPs can, and do, rebel against the whip. The argument that whipping is necessary because most people vote for a party rather than an individual MP is the most compelling point in its favour: all the same, party democracy is itself threatened by the potentially unlimited power of the prime minister and an increasingly dominant executive.

The constitutional implications are clear. The whipping system has stymied internal reform of Parliament and undermined attempts to hold the executive more accountable. In its primary role as the leaderships’ enforcer, it supports elective dictatorships, however temporary. It perpetuates an infantilised, oppositional two-party system and the imposition of a party unanimity that makes a mockery of representative democracy. Meanwhile, the disempowerment of both voters and their representatives opens the door to either hollow populism or despairing disengagement, with the darkest of potential outcomes.


  • 22 June 2023 at 4:48pm
    XopherO says:
    A reasonable summary of the well known fact that MPs are Lobby fodder. So they cry and stress but follow party orders, except for the few - Corbyn, the Beast of Bolsover, Benn the elder. I believe over 70 Labour MPs abstained or voted against the illegal invasion, so it is possible, but of course they blighted their advancement in the Parliamentary party, at least for a year or more, Corbyn of course, for his whole career until the 'accident' of 2015, and Benn after his post under Wilson, which is why so many wimps voted for the invasion to keep their hopes of a ministerial position on course. Really shocking, whatever the arm-twisting! Some remain who voted for, like Lammy, who was promoted but claims to have apologised, as if you can apologise for hundreds of thousands of dead civilians. I do not know why there is any argument over MPs pay. No qualifications required except extreme obedience, and a convergent mind - for over £80k. It's a joke. Cut it in half! There are a lot of well-educated and autodidacts out there who would accept £40k plus expenses and long holidays, and who would stand by what they believe in, and do their homework instead of listening to the whips.

    • 23 June 2023 at 6:31pm
      Tabitha Troughton says: @ XopherO
      Hello. Just to say that detailed analysis of the pressure put on our MPs over the Iraq vote can be found in part 3 of the report (linked to above). In fact, the significant vote was on the cross-party amendment asserting that 'the case for war had not been established'. 139 Labour MPs defied the whips and backed the amendment, down from a potential 200 rebels before the whipping operation began. After that was lost, the vote proper was inevitable. Many anti-war MPs did indeed abstain on this, rather than vote against its 'support our troops' sentiments.

    • 24 June 2023 at 3:01pm
      Graucho says: @ XopherO
      One should not forget that the vote to go to war in Iraq got through because it was backed by Ian Duncan Smith. That surely should have told us all what a bad idea it was,

    • 25 June 2023 at 11:41am
      MattG says: @ Tabitha Troughton
      I don't get your your argument. I thought 412 = 64% voted for war. If all abstainers had voted against it would have made no difference.

      Although I agree with your overall assessment of parliament the Iraq war is a poor example. My memory is that the war, like all foreign wars, was sadly overwhelmingly popular.

    • 25 June 2023 at 3:21pm
      Tabitha Troughton says: @ MattG
      Hello Matt - I'm not sure if I should be taking up space by quoting from my report here, but, in summary: polls in 2002 had shown a majority of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters against an attack on Iraq. The last pre-war polls in 2003 had shown between 63 and 67 percent of the public were opposed to war without proof that the Iraq regime was hiding weapons, or a Security Council resolution. Again, there was a majority across voters of all the major parties. Simon Nixon, in the Spectator, two months after the vote, reported: 'Most Conservative MPs freely admit that the mood in their constituencies, even among party members, was largely one of opposition'. Yet Iain Duncan Smith, then Conservative leader, was adopting a position:
      'markedly at odds with the views of most of the diplomatic and military establishments, large swaths of the Conservative press, and a formidable array of party grandees...Moreover, here was a leader of the opposition who continued to support the government even as more than a million people marched through the streets of London in the biggest demonstration of popular opposition to any government in British history'.
      Duncan Smith had interesting reasons for this (Nixon cites his close contacts with US neo-conservative think tanks when shadow defence secretary). But popular the war was not.

  • 22 June 2023 at 11:28pm
    enfieldian says:
    One of the key facts about Britain’s dire political crisis is that the “infantilised two party system” makes it impossible for many issues that are vitally important to the electorate - for example, the horrors of the private renting sector - to even be discussed, let alone resolved. But is the whipping system, so obviously corrupt and amoral as it is, at the root of the system’s inadequacy? British politics is terminally constipated, and the cause of this is the mystifying and demoralising effect of the parties themselves, especially that of the Labour Party, which in its early days at least purported to offer people some kind of social change, rather than just more of the same.

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