Rather a bold statement, I know, especially when one considers that this has been the case for centuries. Clearly then, I am not referring to any relatively new threats to our democracy such as terrorism or increasingly ambitious surveillance laws although these are certainly things of which we must be wary. Rather, I am speaking of a threat that is built into our democratic system.
The Whips are the means by which political parties force their MPs to vote in accordance with official policy. When most votes are called, an MP will not vote in accordance with their opinion, not in accordance with the wishes of their constituents, not even in accordance with what is right. They will vote however the Whips tell them to. If they don’t then they could be glossed over in the next reshuffle, they could be expelled from the party, or perhaps something awful about them would be revealed – the Whips were instrumental in covering up historic sexual abuse cases in order to blackmail MPs later on.
In perhaps the most humorous (although tragic/upsetting/disgraceful would be more appropriate) display of the power of the Whip, I can offer up the example of the European Union Referendum debate. No, not James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill; instead I refer to the debate that was had after a petition reaching over 100,000 signatures was handed in to Parliament. This should have been a crowning moment for the new e-petitions website: the demos decide they want to change something so they request not an immediate change in the law but yet another wondrous piece of democracy, a referendum. If this had passed then it would have been a triumph of British democracy. Instead, there was a three-line whip against the motion (ie, vote against having a referendum) and consequently the motion failed handily. Fast forward a couple of years and a lot of Conservative MPs have changed their mind – although one can’t help but think that the Whips now favouring such a referendum will also have helped the Bill carry.
I don’t wish to talk too much about the UK’s membership of the European Union, at least not in this post. I bring it up for two reasons though: firstly, the nature of the original attempt to get a referendum and the manner in which we were prevented from having one says a lot about how the Whips usurp democracy; and secondly, no matter your position on our EU membership it is impossible to deny that it is one of the most important and extensive political and constitutional matters facing this country. The need for an unbiased debate should be clear to everyone.
Yet what good is it even thinking about discussing this issue when the speeches we will hear about in Parliament and the decisions being made in the voting lobby have already been dictated unto members by the Chief Whip? The same goes for any other Bill. I want to hear what my MP’s opinion on a Bill is, not what CCHQ’s is. I want my MP to vote based on the evidence presented to them by their researchers and the experiences recounted unto them by their constituents. I don’t want them to vote based on how they think a certain vote will impact their career prospects. In turn, I want my MP to be promoted based on their ability to persuade and articulate and dedicate themselves to something, and not based on how loyal they are to the party line.
I value democracy, meritocracy, and decency. I want my government to embody and uphold those values. But as long as the position of Whip exists, I doubt it ever will.BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS