(un)fair crack of the whip

whipI guess we all know what ‘the whip’ is when it comes to political parties and government (both national and local). It’s the system whereby party members are supposed to vote with the party when it comes to votes (in parliament and in local council meetings).

There’s a logic. MPs and councillors are elected based on a party manifesto. Therefore it’s not unreasonable to vote with the party on issues which are covered in the manifesto. Fair enough.

(Incidentally it’s the big weakness of an ‘Independent’ candidate. He/she won’t generally have a manifesto so how does the community know which way he/she’s likely to vote within parliament or the council? But that’s another matter).

Problems emerge when the policy is subject to some interpretation, we see this now nationally of course in all the manoeuvering over Brexit, or not covered in the manifesto. Does the whip still apply and if so how?

Within the County Council now this issue keeps cropping up. Or at least I guess it does but it’s not possible to observe how it’s being played out. The trouble is this does result in some profoundly undemocratic decisions being taken. Let me explain.

Let’s just suppose that there are 60 members of a council and that 35 of those are from one party. There’s a vote on a manifesto issue which the other parties oppose. Everyone votes along party lines and the largest party wins. That’s OK because it reflects, to some extent, the view of the electorate because it voted for parties based on a liking or not for their manifestos.

But now let’s suppose that a softer, non manifesto then turns up. The largest party is not homogenous, it has factions: hard/soft, left/right, old/new etc. On this particular issue 10 of its number doesn’t agree with the majority of their own party because they reckon that that’s the opinion of their electorate. They’d prefer to vote with the opposition parties (who are surprisingly united on this issue).  No problem you’d think. They’ll vote that way and the vote would be won by them along with the opposition parties and the view of the electorate wins the day.

Trouble is it doesn’t always work that way. Let’s just suppose that the largest party has a strong whip. This means they vote internally on a party line, policy is approved by a majority of members 25 to 10, and then everyone is told to support it. The dissenting are ‘whipped’ into voting for something they don’t agree with. The end result is victory for a policy which does not reflect the view of the electorate. For me that’s bad democracy.

So is this what happens at CCC? You bet it does. Individual Tory councillors have described the Tory whip as being Stalinesque and I’ve never seen a meeting in 12 years plus at the council where the Tories have not voted as a block. That’s pretty circumstantial evidence that there’s a whip working to me.

It wouldn’t matter but it can give rise to some pretty bad decisions: the Guided Bus, the street lighting PFI, the Central Library deal (fortunately overturned), the council tax freeze (which is costing the Council over £100 million in foregone funding) etc.

You’ve got to admire it but that’s different to agreeing that it’s right. As a fully paid up member of the awkward squad I couldn’t live with it.

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