News | Published April 01 2019

How does the parliamentary Whipping System work?

With the role of the whips and the extent to which MPs defy them playing a crucial role in Brexit, The Parliamentary Review examines the the Whipping System as a whole, how it works and notable examples of its use.

Some see it as an archaic process with no place in modern-day parliament, whereas others consider it to be the glue holding everything together.

Each party in parliament appoints whips for a number of organisational engagements with regards to parliamentary business. While they are typically the foremost distributor of information concerning upcoming parliamentary business within their party, chief among their responsibilities is whipping: ensuring the highest number of party members possible not only vote, but vote the right way.

In the House of Commons, party whips consist of a Chief Whip, a Deputy Chief Whip in the three main parties, and a number of Junior Whips. The Government Chief Whip is given the formal title of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, and answers directly to the prime minister.

The actual process of ensuring party discipline consists of a whip typically sending out an invitation to vote as a letter. These, also called whips, are issued to MPs, and itemise parliamentary schedule with sentences stating the importance of their attendance next to debates wherein there will be a vote. Direct instruction on voting is generally avoided because of its potential to constitute a breach of parliamentary privilege.

Dependent on the severity of the whip, the sentence in question will be underlined one, two, or three times, which denotes that it is a single-line, two-line, or three-line whip respectively. Single line whips are a general guide to the party decision, but non-binding, and primarily for notification. Two-line whips, also known as double-line whips, are stricter instructions to attend and vote, are considerably more binding, and attendance is typically required.

Finally, three-line whips are the most extreme of their kind, typically only for key issues, such as second readings of important Bills and motions of no confidence. Breach of instruction to attend and vote typically has serious consequences. Ignoring or voting against a three-line whip is usually seen as a rebellion against the party, and could result in disciplinary action such as party suspension or expulsion. In July 2012, 91 Conservative MPs voted against David Cameron regarding reform of the House of Lords, which constituted a huge rebellion and caused considerable distress for the prime minister.

Throughout parliamentary history, whips have used unorthodox tactics to secure votes when absolutely necessary. One of these, as recounted by former MP Joe Ashton in June 1997, was when another member, Leslie Spriggs, was brought to the House for a tied vote despite having recently suffered a severe heart attack. This was during the “last days” of James Callaghan’s government, when key political votes were often decided by the finest of margins. In fact, the vote of no confidence that brought down Callaghan and subsequently ushered Margaret Thatcher into number ten was carried by just one vote.

In the House of Lords, however, party discipline is not as strong. Whips are less exclusively party-oriented, and defeat for the government is generally not as pressing. For major issues, whips in the House of Lords do still try to ensure the best attendance possible.

In both Houses, however, the importance of the whipping system, and of the role of a whip themselves, is clear. Whipping is an integral part of parliamentary process, and a necessary stage in reaching a comprehensive decision on any matter raised in the chamber.

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Authored by

Ross Hindle
Senior Editor
April 01 2019

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