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Whips are senior legislators who enforce what is called "party discipline", but how do they do it, exactly? What is their job? To verbally shame those who don't adhere to the "party line" and vote as they please?

An official of a political party appointed to maintain discipline among its members in Congress or Parliament, especially so as to ensure attendance and voting in debates.

(a Lexico definition)

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@joe-c is right they do keep the leadership informed of concerns. They have a number of roles:-

  1. Get to know individual legislators and what motivates / interests them
  2. Identify bills or points that are problematic
  3. Try to come up with solutions to get bills through

Parliamentary arithmetic will dictate how important their role is and how much the whips will offer for a vote - a close vote on a critical issue may see lots of incentives.

Sometimes it's quite straightforward - if 50 legislators say a bill with a phase-in of 1 year is too short but they would vote for a phase-in of 3 years then that change will likely be made.

Other things they can do is offer subsidies or one-off payments for particular companies e.g. if widget X is to be banned an incentive of £100k for companies to change their factories to widget Y.

Sometimes the incentive might be as small as for the Government Minister to acknowledge a specific local issue in a debate perhaps in response to a staged intervention (i.e. this is all lined up beforehand), e.g.

Govt Minister: I will give way to the Member for Littlehampton.
Member: In my constituency Acme Ltd make 40% of the world supply of widget X can the minister assure me there will be financial support for companies like Acme Ltd.
Govt Minister: I am delighted to inform the house that there will be a fund to give grants of up to £100k to companies like Acme to update their factories.

This then allows the individual member to demonstrate to his constituency how he is working for them.

Other incentives the whips can give are promotions to government, places on committees, visits by Cabinet ministers to their constituency, even places on overseas trips.

On the negative side as well as not giving the above (!) the ultimate sanction they can take is to "withdraw the whip", this means the legislator will not receive any guidance on which votes are important, how they are encouraged to vote. Ultimately someone without the whip cannot stand for that party at the next election. Whips have a lot of "soft" power backed up by the ability to effectively end an individual's political career.

See Wikipedia's article: "September 2019 suspension of rebel Conservative MPs"

On 29 October 2019, 10 of the suspended MPs had the whip restored.[6] Six stood down at the December 2019 election, while four contested it as Conservative candidates; all four retained their seats. Of the 11 who remained suspended, six declined to stand at the election, while five stood as independents or Liberal Democrats; all five lost their seats.

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  • I guess that whip withdrawing works better with plurality voting in place (specifically, the first-past-the-post system). Otherwise, a candidate that got in the party's bad books could successfully run on other parties' party lists (because there wouldn't be a two-party political oligopoly) Jan 5 at 14:55
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    Re withdrawing the whip: not being able to stand as the candidate for that party is the most significant threat, as that makes it much harder for an MP to ever be re-elected. Whereas not having access to vote information is minor by comparison, since that information is not secret anyway. Jan 5 at 14:57
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    @SergeyZolotarev Not necessarily. Even in more complicated multi-party systems, it’s not exactly trivial to hop to another party when you have been functionally ejected from your previous party. You still have to build up trust with the new party and with the new set of voters, which is much harder to do because you were forced out of your previous party. Jan 5 at 16:40
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    @SergeyZolotarev Even in FPTP systems, it's not unknown for an MP to join another party and then successfully retain their seat (or win a different one). Of course in any system, elevating a defector above loyalists can cause interpersonal issues in their new party as much as their old one
    – origimbo
    Jan 5 at 16:42
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    Withdrawing the whip is the nuclear option. Below that level, the whips will make sure that any new MP who doesn't toe the party line when required is at the end of the queue for appointments to parliamentary committees, which is where the real work gets done, real political influence can be applied, and (in the case of committees which are reported by the press or broadcast media) national publicity is available for free.
    – alephzero
    Jan 5 at 20:27
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Whips effectively serve as the link between the party leadership and individual legislators. In that sense, they are responsible for informing legislators of when key votes are due to take place, and what the party's position is on it. They are also responsible for attempting to persuade legislators of the party's position where necessary, and to report back to the party leadership when there is a risk of a substantial rebellion.

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  • It would be interesting to add information about how rebellion is punished. I have heard people are punished by having the "whip removed" but I have no idea what that means.
    – Rich
    Jan 5 at 9:50
  • @Rich That generally just means they no longer considered to be sitting as a party MP (while possibly still being a member of their local party). The underlying threat is the loss of party seniority and with it access to the jobs, offices and committees they'd like.
    – origimbo
    Jan 5 at 10:26
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    See my answer above - having the whip removed can end your political career as you are no longer eligible to stand as a candidate for that party.
    – Alan Dev
    Jan 5 at 10:55
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    @AlanDev although that depends (at least in the UK) on the individual party constitutions, with the relevant sections sometimes points of argument between the constituency and parliamentary parties.
    – origimbo
    Jan 5 at 14:12

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