In defence of whips

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Here we go again. Andreas Whittam-Smith has written an eye-wateringly hyperbolic piece about Jury Team, which is launching tomorrow. I plan to be at their launch and it remains to be seen how exactly they intend to organise, but when people use stock phrases like “harness the power of the internet” I tend to assume they are going to fail before they begin. Apparently we are to regard Sir Paul Judge as the UK’s Barack Obama. The anti-sleaze champion who is to turn this all around needs money, lots of it, something which he would have had £200,000 more of had he not failed in his bid to sue the Guardian for libel over the Asil Nadir affair in the mid-nineties. Apparently the old adage about he who without sin throwing the first stone, doesn’t apply if you call yourself an independent.

All of this smacks of déjà vu all over again for me, in two ways. First of all, there is the fact that the media was falling over themselves five years ago to big up YourParty, which was apparently going to set the political stage on fire. I even commssioned an article from them, which now appears to be the only online record of their strategy. Talk about history repeating as tragedy and then farce – at least they were dotcom millionaires as opposed to former Tory director generals.

But secondly, there is my experience of student and parish council politics. Seemingly very different spheres, both these battlegrounds have one thing in common: to call yourself an independent is worth real votes. For years, most of the places at the NUS top table were reserved for Labour Party membership card-carrying “independents” who would denounce Labour on the conference stage and then do the party’s bidding behind closed doors. Point this fact out to their supporters and they preferred to ignore that fact, finding the lie much easier to deal with.

In parish elections, there is a similar phenomenon. It doesn’t matter what your political agenda is, so long as you play the independent card you are at an automatic advantage. You don’t have to produce a manifesto and you do it in the certain knowledge that most of your supporters will not really be interested in the day-to-day goings on of the parish council, and so hegemonies arise of “independents” who are really only doing it for glory and low-level corruption. And then they have the cheek to lay that smear on anyone standing with a party label.

It remains to be seen how Jury Team plans to select its candidates. Whittam-Smith suggests it will be done by mobile phone primaries. Leaving aside the security implications of such a system, even in the US Congressional primaries – where the system is well established – are notable for their low participation rates. And if the party is to have no policies other than the twelve proposals it has already listed, how is this going to work with the current system for European Parliament elections? If there is a rabid rightwinger at the top of their list, am I really expected to vote for that guy in the knowledge that it might get the more reasonable person in the number two spot elected?

This example highlights the one notable thing that is absent from Jury Team’s twelve proposals, most of which are interesting: reform of the electoral system. Without reform, running an indpendents list for the Euro-elections is a nonsense, but it is also a bit of a nonsense under the first past the post system as well. Jury Team could get 20% of the votes in 2010 and not get a single MP elected; knowing that, why should people waste their time with them?

Instead of electoral reform, Jury Team propose to bring an end to the party whips. Now there is some out and out nonsense here, such as:

The only real challenge to the UK Government is now through the crossbenchers in the House of Lords who are individuals acting on the basis that they have a free vote which is not whipped by any party. The success of the Lords’ crossbenchers in enforcing better discussion of Government proposals in recent years provides very strong support in favour of allowing similar discussions and votes, unfettered by party whipping, to take place in the House of Commons. It should also be noted that the crossbenchers act as a formal group, even electing their own chair, but these structures confine themselves to administrative matters and do not direct any political policy, exactly as envisaged for the Jury Team.

Are they deliberately trying to wind me up here? It is nonsense from start to finish. The challenge in the Lords is a whipped party vote in a chamber in which no single party has overall control. The crossbenchers barely turn up enough to actually count. Indeed, if this is the model they are seeking to replicate in the House of Commons, it would be an absolute scandal. It would mean turnout amongst MPs would plummet, the government would be held to less account – not more – and yet we would continue to pay them their salary (which, under their proposal to make MPs’ pay awards independent, would mean we end up shelling out even more, as Will Howells points out).

If the party whips system did not exist, we would have to invent it. 99% of the time, the whipping system is entirely benign. It is about making sure MPs vote according to the party line so they can afford to specialise and not have to focus on the minutiae of every single debate. It is about ensuring that if an MP has to be away from the chamber at any given time, then the overall political balance in the chamber can be maintained. Occasionally, very occasionally, it can lead to strong arming and even outright violence – mainly because we have a two-party model that is rooted in the idea that the government cannot afford to ever lose a vote on the Commons floor. If we had a politically balanced House of Commons, we’d see more defeats but I doubt we’d see much more in terms of rebellions. Again, MPs are, if anything, more rebellious than Lords. Could it be that they tend to vote along the party line not because whips hold some kind of terror over them but because they perceive the system is in their long term interests?

If we didn’t have party whips, we would still have a similar system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-mine. In place of parties would be informal relationships between individuals. The key difference will be that the conspirators will not be accountable to a common manifesto and it will be far more opaque than what we have at present. If I vote for a Labour, Tory or Lib Dem MP I have a fair idea of what I’m getting. How many people knew in 1997 that when they voted for Martin Bell they were getting an opponent of gay rights, for example?

I want Jury Team to make a real go of it, in a way that Your Party never did, not because I think it is a good idea but because I think it is a terrible one. In many respects I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to be sitting here, in 20 years time, as an Independent MP cringing at the thought of how I bought into all that party nonsense. But the truth is I suspect it will fizzle out within twelve months, just as all similar attempts have done so – not because of an evil hegemonic political system with an agenda to stop anyone from trying something new, but because it is a fundamentally bad idea based on an exaggerated fixation on the importance of the individual over and above the need for collective action. We will see.

3 thoughts on “In defence of whips

  1. As a “mould-breaker” I’d like to see new parties emerge which really challenged the system as that’s something we consistently fail to do.

    However like you I can see this being YourParty for 2010.

    Or Rodney Hylton-Potts who won that weird Pop Idol pick a candidate style programme. He polled 155 votes more than me in Folkestone (and I wasn’t a candidate!)

    The alternative to the whipping system is to have something like the US House with all the pork-barrel politics that go with that institution.

  2. I have looked at the article, and I cannot say it is unbelievably bad, because the main problem with it is that it is very, very bad, but believable – I would guess a massive majority of the population would think it sensible comment. I would hope someone like Andreas Whittam-Smith, who I had previously assumed to be a sensible, and intelligent man who is well-informed about public affairs would be in the minority who could see through rubbish like this, but if he can’t you can be quite sure the ordinary person on the street can’t.

    What Andreas Whittam-Smith thinks about politics and political parties, he thinks about us, and so do almost all the voters. And that’s OUR problem. If they get us so wrong, we’re doing something wrong that causes that, and we need to sort ourselves out so they don’t get us wrong in that way. That is part of the reason why I have been so dismissive of the recent flurry of comment around “our problem is that we are not ambitious enough”. I feel what that line is saying is that being “ambitious” means being more like Whittam-Smith’s caricature of politicians – people who are convinced they are right, people who will do anything to gain power, people who put up a slick marketing front selling themselves like a brand and like all marketing it’s half-truths and sales pitch rather than honest take-it-or-leave-it presentation. And those who are urging us to present ourselves like this are not entirely wrong to say that stuff works. The punters will say they would like more independent politicians, and less tight whipping, but at the same time they say they don’t like parties to look weak and divided, and history suggests its the latter of the two contradictory viewpoints that tends to win out in votes cast.

    Whittam-Smith says that voters want their politicians to be honest, effective and focused on the national interest. I think most of us are. Why should we get involved in the Liberal Democrats if we are not? The voters may think there are some big pots of money we get our hands on to spend on ourselves merely by being active members, but I think we know there are not. For most of us, our political activity has meant sacrifice in other areas of our lives for very little material reward. Anyone who thinks joining the Liberal Democrats is a path to riches is surely very far removed from this world.

    But most people I know in the other parties are similar, we may disagree with them over what is effective, but I see few who I would really regard as immoral nasty pieces of work. OK, I think we’re better because we really don’t offer anything in the way of a real career, but most people who are active in the other big parties aren’t doing it for a career. We can’t all become MPs, don’t all want to anyway, and if Andreas Whittam-Smith thinks being a councillor is such a cushy number I suggest he tries it and tries living on the allowance it pays.

    Whittam-Smith says he wants to see candidates who “have spent their careers to date in business, or in the voluntary sector, or in public service, or they may be farmers or soldiers, teachers or journalists, doctors or engineers or be pursuing other occupations”. Well, that is what I find most people who are active members of our party are. Mass political parties were set up to do the job Whittam-Smith says this “Jury Team” is to do – enable ordinary people to club together and pick from amongst their number people they promote into political life. The whole point was to break the power of the aristocracy, of politics where only those with inherited wealth, or sponsored by those with inherited wealth could go into it. And I think it works like that still. Most of our politicians are people from not particularly privileged background. We are not like the USA where the primary system has replaced real active political parties, meaning politics is really a competition between rich independents because you need personal wealth to win through the primary system and its commitment to your personal power that will get you through it rather than commitment to the values you share with your party colleagues. If we have failed to put the message across that we are composed of ordinary people and our job is to get them into politics with the only qualification being that they share our liberal values, we are doing it wrong, and we need to find ways of getting this message out.

    Whittam-Smith makes himself look like the guy on the bar stool who propounds contradictory views because he is too stupid to understand what he is saying when he first says politicians are all to blame for various project failures: IT systems, contracts for doctors, etc, and secondly says service delivers should not be micro-managed. Er, isn’t expecting national politicians to step down to such details as the precise way IT systems are developed and to impose rules on them because they are all to blame if the systems go wrong, PRECISELY “micro-management”?

    Now, I think there is a lot to say about the crapness of modern management, and when it comes to public services I think that’s added to by the “something must be done” attitude (which Whittam-Smith is adding to when he suggests such things as MPs micro-managing the procurement of IT systems). But I don’t think that’s anything where a few independent MPs is going to make any difference. As others have noted, in local government we do still have independent councillors, and, with rare exceptions, these people don’t show up to be any better at management or scrutiny or producing good ideas than ones with a political label. In fact, they tend to be worse.

  3. I think Hywel’s final point is quite relevant – with a much weaker whipping (and party identification) system, the US Congress has become a morass of earmarks and institutionalised corruption.

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