Sunday, 14 June 2009

More on whipping

The key misconception about the role of the Whips office is that it's all about forcing people to do what they don't want to do (i.e. to vote with the party, not against it). OK, so the job of the whips is to get Government business through the House. but more often than not this is about the simple task of making sure enough MPs are present to vote. Each whip has particular responsibilities. I'm the South West whip, which means I look after backbenchers in the South West region (all seven of them, so I get off lightly!) I also have departmental responsibilities, for No. 10, DFID and the Northern Ireland office.

If those backbenchers or Ministers in those departments want to miss a vote, they have to ask me if they can be 'slipped'. For example, if Shaun Woodward or Paul Goggins want to be in Stormont, they have to clear this with the whip. The final say goes to the all-powerful pairing whip. Until recently the post was occupied by the formidable Tommy McAvoy, but he's now been promoted to Deputy Chief Whip, and now it's Tony Cunningham's job. He has to make sure we have the numbers to get legislation through, whilst taking into account MPs' other commitments. What's more important, for example - a Minister wanting to travel to Brussels for a meeting of his/ her EU counterparts, or a backbench MP wanting to attend the funeral of a long-serving councillor back in the constituency? Someone wanting to attend the opening of a local Children's Centre, or someone wanting to go on an overseas Select Committee visit? And then there's the issue of whether to call in those who are sick, or on maternity leave or compassionate leave, depending on how tight the vote is likely to be. Then there's a judgment call to be made as to whether certain MPs (former Cabinet ministers in particular, and some of the old-stagers) are likely to hang around for the 10pm votes - and not much can be done to stop them if they don't want to.

Finally, there's the issue of rebellions. How many Labour MPs are likely to vote against the Government? How many are likely to abstain? This is where what some would refer to as the whips' "dark arts" come into play. A whip needs to know what backbenchers are thinking and feeling and planning on doing. But this is as much about having a good relationship with those MPs, and having a two-way conversation. If an MP has concerns about a particular piece of legislation it's far better to arrange for them to talk to a Minister, and see if consensus can be reached before the issue comes to a vote. Either the backbencher's concerns will be allayed, or the Minister will concede a point. And on some occasions appeals to the backbencher's loyalty might be made, of course, which is what people commonly perceive to be the Whips' role, the so-called arm-twisting.

As for the little black book rumoured to exist somewhere in the Whips' office, containing everyone's darkest secrets... it doesn't exist. It is actually quite important for a whip to know something of what is going on in the lives of 'their MPs', but not for blackmail purposes! If an MP has a health problem, or a parent or partner who is seriously ill, or problems with their local party, or whatever, it's useful to know so that MPs can be supported, and allowances made, for example in not putting them on big Bill committees or 'slipping' them from late votes. So actually we're quite cuddly really. Our job is to look after MPs. To befriend them. Honestly!

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