Defence of the Whip System

This article on the whip system by Minister Varadkar was published in the Sunday Independent on June 23rd.

The debate about the abolition of the Seanad and calls for a free vote on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill has brought the whip system into sharp focus. A lot of the commentary has been ill-informed. The public would be forgiven for thinking that the whip was something unique to Ireland and imposed by oppressive leaders on cowering TDs and Senators forced to set aside their own consciences and judgment for fear of expulsion from their party. It’s not like that.

First of all, the whip system is not in the constitution nor is it enshrined in law. Rather, when a politician ‘takes the whip’ they enter into a voluntary agreement with like-minded colleagues to vote together as a group. Those who don’t, sit as independents and they are plentiful in both houses.

When I contested the General Election, I did so as a Fine Gael candidate and not as an independent and people voted for me on that basis. When the local branch selected me as their candidate, I duly signed a pledge saying that I would respect the ethics acts, uphold the rules of the party and vote with the party.

I do not have a mandate to act independently. My mandate is to sit, act and vote as a Fine Gael TD while using my conscience, knowledge and judgement to inform and influence the positions my party takes.

We take the whip because we believe that we can achieve more as a group of like-minded elected representatives than we can alone. Independents can be powerful advocates, raising questions, highlighting causes, sometimes cutting deals for their constituencies but they rarely have a substantive influence on the policies of government or on the direction in which the country is led.
The whip system is not a unique feature of the Dail. It is also a feature, to varying extents, of almost all modern parliamentary democracies. To be truly legitimate, there must be proper internal party democracy with backbenchers and activists allowed more than just the right to express their views.

The whip system is ingrained in Irish political culture going back to Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell organised a rabble of almost one hundred Irish MPs in the House of Commons into a cohesive political party that stood for Ireland. Members of the group were required to sign a pledge to ‘sit, act and vote’ with the Irish Party.

Using their influence as a party they sparked massive legislative change, returning the land of Ireland back to the people of Ireland, securing major reforms in education and using the balance of power which they held between the Conservatives and Liberals to secure the Home Rule Act. . That is where the concept originated and it is now a feature of nearly all parliamentary regimes.

It is suggested by some commentators that parliamentarians freed of the whip would vote according to their conscience or, where their conscience does not override it, would make an objective decision having considered all the facts. That’s hogwash. It’s just not how politics works. Rather, it would increase the influence of the loudest and best organised lobby groups who would target TDs one by one until they promised their support for a particular proposal. And it would increase the influence of wealthy individuals and interests who can afford to fund election campaigns or run campaigns of their own.

The United States is a good case study. Lawmakers in both Houses of the Congress are free to vote with their conscience. But this does not lead to better government or better law making. For example, the majority of Americans now support tighter gun control and most congressmen probably support it too. But the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) ensures that congressmen who oppose gun control are rewarded in their districts with votes, donations and volunteers, while those who support gun control are targeted in the next election.

The NRA is just one example of hundreds I could give including the pro-Israel lobby, the tea-party, defence contractors, trial lawyers, NGOs, opaque foundations and trade unions. Congressmen spend much of their time seeking endorsements and donations from such groups and cast their votes with an eye on the score they will given by those groups each year. Worse still, congressmen are free to trade their votes in the way some of our independents have done in the past.

‘I’ll vote for your education bill if you vote for my bill on small business, I don’t need to read it’, they might say. Or, “I’ll vote for these budget cuts but only if you throw in a new road for my district”. Small wonder they cannot agree a federal budget and ‘gridlock’ is the word most commonly used to describe the relationship among the House, Senate and President.

The whip system also gives the voter a clearer idea of what they are voting for. While cynics say otherwise, most political parties adhere to their election manifestos in the main and vote accordingly. Independents rarely produce detailed manifestos at all.

In any case, who should decide what a matter of conscience is and what is not? For some people, social issues such as abortion might be issues of conscience, for others it might be the privatisation of state assets, imposing a tax on property, the transfer or sharing of sovereignty. I suspect conscience would soon become a banner of convenience for many.

Down this road lies legislative paralysis. The whip system prevents that. It protects parliamentarians from being bullied by vested interests, bought off or bargained for. And it protects all of us as citizens from that too.
Of course, the whip system in Ireland does not need to be as rigid as it is. In some parliaments, greater leeway is allowed and the whip is often not applied to procedural votes, internal elections or committee recommendations, for example. While I can see a case for a more relaxed whip system in some cases, I firmly hold, for the reasons I have explained, that we are all far better off with a whip system than without it.