"The idea that British politics needed a radical shake-up; and that this time – unlike any time before – the politicians themselves knew it, gained enormous currency in these heady months. Things were going to change: Brown said so, as did Cameron, as did Clegg, as did almost every other MP with a public profile. Maybe, just maybe, they meant it.
The closest we got was Gordon Brown’s speech, and that was deeply unimpressive on reform. Labour are such pussies that even in the almost certain knowledge that they wouldn’t actually have to live up to anything they proposed, the best they could come up with was a referendum. At some unspecified point in the future. On alternative vote. It’s a stunning lack of ambition, especially since Labour promised a similar referendum in 1997 and never delivered.
This is not good enough. So time for some wishful thinking: perhaps the most obvious and, at the same time, the most seismic of parliamentary reforms would be the end of the three-line whip.
Here’s what the phrase ‘three-line whip’ means: a given MP has a strongly held belief that X is the case. On the order papers telling him what will be debated in Parliament that week, he sees that X is scheduled to be debated. His party’s whips office has underlined the details of this debate not once, not twice, but three times. An additional note from that office tells him that the party’s view is that X is not the case.
The ‘three-line whip’ means that not only must he attend the vote, but he must vote with the party and against his beliefs. If he doesn’t, he will be effectively thrown out of the party. This means that no-one ever disobeys a three-line whip, because to do so would be to sabotage your career beyond repair. Come next election, you’d be out.
I find it absolutely astounding that an MP can be effectively coerced into voting a certain way. Surely this completely undermines the democratic process: we elect MPs because we trust they will work consientiously and believe their judgement is sound; but, as it turns out, their good judgement is irrelevant on the controversial issues.
Abolishing the three-line whip is an easy way to restore some confidence in a shattered system; but instead we are offered tweaks to the voting system which will make no real difference, and which we will have to wait years for.
The whip is the best tool the parties have for keeping their MPs in line, and they can never afford to lose it. After all, as far as the party leadership is concerned, a rebel MP is a wasted MP."