The Whip

Representatives do not spend all their time in the debating chamber. For one thing they have other duties in the assembly, such as the preparation of new laws at the committee stage, for another they need to spend time with the electors in their constituency (the area that they represent), and of course there may be family needs that cannot be delayed.

If a vote is called while they are not present, the government majority would be reduced, and there may be the possibility of defeat. To avoid this happening, the Whips count the number of government representatives present, and the number of opposition representatives. If it seems likely that extra members are required to ensure a majority, a Whip may be issued. A Whip could be from 1 Line to a maximum of 3 Lines, indicating the urgency of the need. The Whip also indicates the importance of voting with the party, for representatives have three possibilities:- to vote with, to abstain from voting altogether, or to vote for the opposition.

If a 3-line Whip has been issued, representatives are expected to attend and vote if humanly possible, even though they may be put to some discomfort or inconvenience, such as when receiving hospital treament. To avoid such embarrassment, a system of Pairing was developed whereby if one of the pair was unable to attend and vote, the other (from the opposite party) would also refrain from voting.

Of course, representatives coming into the chamber just to attend the vote (or Division, as it is called in Parliament), will have no knowledge of the debate that preceeded it, and are in fact voting ‘blind’. In a democratic system, the question may well be asked if they should be allowed to vote at all, if they don’t know what they are voting for. In this case, however, they will probably vote in accordance with their party requirement.

Problems of discipline can arise when a representative cannot agree with party doctrine, and decides to vote with the opposition, or abstain (not vote at all). In Paul Marsden’s case, he had gone one step further than that, and had openly questioned the prime minister (his own party) on a matter of policy. The result you can read below.

If a representative persistently refuses to conform to his party’s wishes, he may be expelled from the party, thus losing all further support. He may continue as an Independent for the remainder of the government period if the electors that returned him are in agreement. Failing that, he should step down, and the seat will be re-contested in a Bye-election.
‘Those that are not with us are against us’
Monday October 22, 2001
The Guardian

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation between the Labour government chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, and the Labour party MP for Shrewsbury Paul Marsden, as recorded by Mr Marsden in the Mail on Sunday.

Hilary Armstrong: Paul Marsden:

Paul, we are all comrades together in the Labour party and we are all supposed to be on the same side. I want to improve your communication skills.

What do you mean?

I want you to join the mainstream of the party.

What do you mean by the mainstream?

Look, Paul, let me put it another way, those that aren’t with us are against us.

Name names.

We don’t really know each other do we? We haven’t had a chance to speak properly in the last four years.

[Marsden mentioned three previous meetings.]

Oh yes, I remember now.

[She picked up an inch-thick brown file and waved it in his face, opening it to reveal articles written by Marsden for his local Shropshire Star newspaper; speeches he had made; transcripts of radio interviews he had given.]

I want a guarantee that you will not talk to the media unless you speak to me first.

I won’t do that. I believe it is my right to speak to whoever I choose.

I have been looking at your file, you are clearly very inexperienced and your attendance record is poor.

I take great offence at that. I am not inexperienced and my attendance record is certainly not poor. My wife was being cut open in the operating theatre and Nick Brown kindly allowed me extra time at home. You must know all that. What the hell has it got to do with all this?

[Between 1997 and 1999 Marsden had spent a lot of time away from the Commons. His wife was seriously ill and had given birth. Ex-chief whip Nick Brown gave him compassionate leave.]

Your attendance record was not good last year either. You missed more votes than most others.

That is not true. We were fighting a general election and you lot told us to go home and campaign to win it.

You made a complete fool of yourself the other day when you got up in the Commons.

[Armstrong was referring to Marsden’s question to Blair in the October 8 emergency Commons debate, when the MP said the decision to go to war should be approved by a vote of all MPs, not by the prime minister alone.]

You just don’t understand the rules here, you’re too inexperienced.

There’s no need to insult me. I know the rules, I consulted the Speaker’s clerk about voting procedures.

In fact we may well hold a vote, but if we do, it will be whipped.

That is outrageous. You won’t even give us a free vote on whether we go to war – it is an issue which should be a matter of conscience.

War is not a matter of conscience. Abortion and embryo research are matters of conscience, but not wars.

Are you seriously saying blowing people up and killing people is not a moral issue?

It is government policy that we are at war. You astound me. We can’t have a trusting relationship if you keep talking to the media without permission.

It would help if your deputy didn’t send me snotty letters disciplining me.

I did leave a message at your office on Monday night saying to call me.

Are you sure?

Yes. Why?

You couldn’t have phoned the Shrewsbury office because you didn’t leave a message on the answer machine. You can’t have left a message in London either, because I was in the office and there was no voicemail left there.

But I spoke to someone and left a message with them.

You didn’t. I checked the telephone log and there are no messages left.

Er, perhaps I got the wrong number.

Let’s get this straight. You did not call me.

Anyway, you must stop using the media.

That’s a bit rich coming from people like you and Downing Street when Stephen Byers’s spin doctor Jo Moore says September 11 is a good day to bury bad news.

Jo Moore didn’t say that.

That is exactly what she said in her email.

We don’t have spin doctors in Number 10 – or anywhere else.

(laughing) You aren’t seriously telling me that you don’t have spin doctors and they don’t exist. You are losing it Hilary.

(shouting) You wait until I really do lose it. I am not going to have a dialogue with you about that. It was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938.

Don’t you dare call me an appeaser! I am not in favour of appeasing Bin Laden, I simply disagree with the way the government is going about stopping him. That’s the official line now is it? We are all appeasers if we don’t agree with everything you say?

Well, what would you do about Bin Laden, then?

I think we should indict him on criminal charges. It could be done very quickly and then the UN should take charge of the military action, not the USA. It would be much more effective. By all means send in the SAS, but let’s get the UN onside first.

The trouble with people like you is that you are so clever with words that us up North can’t argue back.

Do you mind? I am a Northerner myself. I was born in Cheshire. I spent four years at Teesside Polytechnic near where you come from.

You do realise that everything that is said in here is private and confidential, don’t you? You cannot go out and tell the media.

I haven’t got the media outside and I won’t go to them. But if they come to me I will talk to them.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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