Whips are often used to 'persuade' MPs in their party to vote the way the Party wishes them to vote.

What power, or powers, do Whips have over backbench MPs to enforce this wish?

  • 11
    Not being familiar with nuances of British politics all that much, I always assumed that they used literal whips.
    – user4012
    Jun 30 '16 at 19:05
  • 15
    @user4012 No, that would be barbaric. That practice was abolished in the 18th century. Now they are using wooden paddles.
    – Philipp
    Jun 30 '16 at 19:59

Theoretically, an MP is free to vote however he or she chooses, once elected.

However, a good politician understands that a parliamentary faction is only strong as long as it is united. When an MP votes against the party line on one issue, they can expect that others might follow suit on different issues, especially those where the MP believes very strongly in the party position.

This is also important for the acceptance of the party as a whole. When people voted for party X because their opinion about issue Y, and then a considerable part of the elected MPs votes different, they will rightfully feel cheated.

But when an MP fails to understand these party-strategic concerns, it's the job of the party whip to remind them of two facts:

  1. The party decides who runs as the official candidate of the party in the MPs constituency. Also, the party decides how many resources they spend on each constituency. The MP will require the help of the party in the next election.
  2. The party decides who gets positions which are even more powerful than just being an MP, like a seat on an interesting committee (parliamentary or party-internal) or becomes a minister.

So while the whip can not sanction a rogue MP here and now, they can threaten that their political career will be over at the end of the legislative period.

There are also anecdotal stories of party whips using more underhanded tactics bordering on extortion or blackmail to enforce party loyalty. But due to the secretive nature of party-internal affairs there is a lot of hearsay and conspiracy theorizing involved in these stories, so I am not going to speculate on how often this really happens.

  • A good answer, although there are distinctions between the national party and the local party that aren't touched on, and potentially vary between parties as well. So it is possible for a local MP who consistently votes against their National Party position to be popular enough with the local party that they will remain in position no matter how unhappy the National Party leadership may be.
    – Jontia
    Mar 28 '19 at 15:12

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