The Role of Whips in Politics: Unveiling the Dark Arts 

 Cllr Jim Yare 

 30th April 2024 

How the big two parties keep their members in line, and how it’s damaging our communities.

A grayscale photo of South Shields Town Hall Chamber, empty and looking towards the high chairs that tower over the chamber.

In the intricate world of politics, where decisions shape the course of our communities, there exists a shadowy figure—the whip. Often misunderstood and shrouded in mystery, the whip plays a crucial role behind the scenes, ensuring party discipline and cohesion.

In this article, we’ll demystify the whip’s function, explore its impact on democracy, and discuss the merits of an independent-minded councillor.

What Is a Whip?

A whip is an official within a political party tasked with maintaining party loyalty and enforcing party discipline in a legislature. Their primary duty is to ensure that party members vote in alignment with the party platform, rather than following their individual views or the will of their residents.

Whips are the party’s “enforcers,” orchestrating the delicate dance of votes and actions. Whipping is often described as “a deed without a name,” invoking images of secret meetings, hushed corridors, and whispered instructions. While it lacks the glamour of public speeches and grand debates, its impact reverberates through the halls of power.

Let’s delve into the tactics employed by these political puppet masters:

1. Persuasion and Subtle Intimidation: Whips engage in delicate negotiations, cajoling representatives to toe the party line. Picture a whip leaning in, whispering, “Think of your demographics, remember which party they voted for” The art lies in making it sound like a logical choice rather than obvious coercion – which it often is.

2. Behind-the-Scenes ‘Support’: Beyond vote-counting, whips play an unexpected role as political agony aunts. They help party representatives navigate personal crises—financial woes, divorces, health struggles—shielding them from public scrutiny. It’s a discreet form of support that rarely makes headlines, and can intertwine their grip on their party’s councillors.

3. The Urquhart Effect: Remember Francis Urquhart from the BBC’s “House of Cards”? His devious maneuvers epitomize the whip’s allure. While real-life whips may not resort to such lengths, they wield influence with precision, akin to a psychological chess match.

The Tug-of-War

Whips walk a tightrope between party loyalty and democratic representation. On one hand, they ensure party cohesion, enabling efficient governance. On the other, they risk stifling dissent and independent thought. When your councillors vote along party lines, it silences diverse perspectives.

In South Tyneside, the impact of a political whip is evident through ‘puppet string’ voting from the Labour benches. During a recent debate on introducing timescales for complaints, I argued that setting response targets benefits residents and ensures resource allocation. Despite unanimous opposition from the Labour benches, members of the ruling group privately agreed with my arguments but lacked the autonomy to vote in their resident’s best interests.

The Open-Minded Councillor Imagine a councillor unshackled from the whip’s constraints—a free thinker who weighs each issue with free thought.

Here’s where the benefits emerge:

1. Authentic Representation: An independently-minded councillor can champion constituents’ unique needs without party dogma. Their votes reflect the community’s pulse, not a distant party manifesto.

2. Collaboration with Colleagues: While independence is valuable, collaboration matters. A councillor backed by a party enjoys resources, expertise, and collective support. It’s the best of both worlds: principled independence with a safety net.

The Green Party’s Perspective

The Green Party of England and Wales takes a distinct approach. Unlike some parties, the Greens don’t wield the whip as a disciplinary tool. Instead, they empower their councillors to vote according to their conscience and the best interests of their constituents.

Here’s why this matters:

1. Local Priorities: Green councillors prioritize local issues—clean air, sustainable transport, green spaces—over rigid party lines. Their decisions resonate with the people they represent, not distant party elites.

2. Freedom to Speak Up: Without the whip’s pressure, Green councillors can openly advocate for innovative policies. Whether it’s promoting renewable energy or championing community gardens, they have the freedom to voice bold ideas.

3. Accountability: Greens believe in transparency. When a Green councillor votes, it’s not a party mandate; it’s a commitment to their community. Accountability rests squarely with the constituents. We are proud to provide this accountable, open minded, and transparent representation across our borough, including in my ward of West Park where three Green Councillors serve its residents all year round.

As we peel back the layers of political intrigue, remember that whips shape our democracy from the shadows. This is why we need open minded councillors – to bridge between conviction and pragmatism.

In the end, it’s not just about votes; it’s about protecting our communities for generations to come.

Cllr Jim Yare – Green Councillor for West Park

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