The idea behind giving MPs public money to keep two homes instead of one, is so that they can maintain a strong connection with their constituency while representing it in Westminster. So who decides when an MP shows up in Parliament and which way they should vote when they get there? Is it:
- The people who elected them and whom they represent?
- The MP makes up their own mind according to their personal opinions?
- They get sent a fax from their party HQ telling them when to be in Parliament, and once they are there they get told which way to vote by a senior member of the party?
If you guessed (3) you’d be right for most of the time. The system is known as “whipping“.
Each of the major parties employ certain MPs to act as “Whips”, a position which functions much as its name suggests – to enforce so-called “party discipline” and make MPs vote the way the leaders of their party want them to.
The Chief Whips send out weekly circulars to “their” MPs notifying them of parliamentary business. The circulars use a code involving underlining. If a vote is underlined once, the Whip considers it routine, and attendance is “optional”. Items underlined twice are more important: attendance is required, unless that MP can organise someone from the opposing party to be absent as well, (a bit more like musical chairs than democracy). Any vote underlined three times means that failure to attend, and vote with the party, will result in disciplinary action. What disciplinary action usually means is expulsion from the party, at least temporarily. Because parties, not constituents, choose who gets to stand in elections, this effectively puts that MP on notice that he or she may well lose their job at the next General Election.
So, how often are votes dictated by “three line whips”? We don’t know, because the Whips’ weekly circulars are not made available to the public.
That’s right. They’re a secret. Just chew on that for a second.
Newspapers occasionally report that votes have been declared “three-line whips” by particular parties. Here are just a few reported examples:
- In 2002, the Conservative party imposed a three-line whip forcing their MPs to oppose the adoption of children by gay couples.
- In 2007, both Labour and the Conservatives imposed three-line whips in favour of a proposal to renew Britain’s nuclear weapons system, Trident.
- In 2008, the Liberal Democrats imposed a three-line whip which instructed their MPs to abstain on a vote to ratify the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
- In 2009, Labour imposed a three line whip in favour of a vote to keep the full detail of MPs expenses secret from the public.
What has this got to do with Open Primaries? Well, right now party Whips can dominate MPs, because it is political parties who chose whether an MP gets selected or not. If voters got to choose who got selected, the Whips’ power would be substantially diminished.
So is your MP working for you, or for the Whip? It’s hard to tell categorically – and not just because the Whips’ weekly reports are kept secret. Even if we could see the Whips’ reports, there’s often no way to tell whether a particular MP would have voted the way they did even if the Whip hadn’t told them to – we can’t read MPs’ minds, after all.
Still, there is a very simple way to tell whether your MP is voting on particular issues in the way you would want them to, thanks to a very cool website put together by volunteers called Public Whip. If you’ve got five minutes, give this a try.
Go to Public Whip, find the box labelled “Find out how any MP or Lord votes” and enter your postcode in the space provided.
You’ll be sent to a new page (see image, below), where the name of your MP will appear. It’s worth checking at this point whether this was the person you voted for in the last election (their party name appears in the third column of the summary box near the top of the page). Obviously, if this MP is not the person you voted for, they’re less likely to share your political views. But if this is the MP you voted to get into power, then to see if they’re representing your views, read on…
Click on the tab marked “Policy comparisons” near the top of the page. Now you should be taken to a list of policies, including the Iraq invasion, abortion, the rights of homosexuals, fox-hunting, ID cards and laws to combat terrorism. Down the side of this list is a list of percentages. A low percentage means that your MP is generally voting against these policies. A high percentage means they are generally voting in favour of them.
Any surprises? If you’re shocked by what you see, leave a comment to this blog post. Do you share their opinions? Do you feel fairly represented? Let us know!