Don’s Dark Arts: Foster reveals the secrets of being a Chief Whip

The House Magazine has produced a Westminster Survival Guide for New MPs. One of the first articles is by former Liberal Democrat Chief Whip who gives some humorous, we think, advice on how to deal with your whips. It’s an article that seeks to take no prisoners from the start:

How to deal with the whips? You don’t have to. The whips deal with you.

He talks about how the job of being a whip has changed over the years. Gone are the days when a whip could hold something in your private life over you.

Also, the whips’ powers of patronage have been significantly reduced as Parliament has more power to elect its own committee chairs. Today the job is more policy focused and about persuading potential rebels to do your bidding. They also act as conduits of feeling on the back benches. If enough people oppose a measure, it can drive change.

There is some power left, though. If you want a night off, guess who you have to ask for permission. If you are ambitious, the whips have an influential role in whether you are promoted.

Read the whole article, though, to find out how whips can help you as well as control your life.


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  • Such institutions are really more appropriate for an openly authoritarian party.

  • One ex-MP has publically said that he was told that if he didn’t vote for a particular measure party funding for campaigning in his seat would be cut back. Unless loyalty to the party line was a criteria in targeting (and I’m not aware that it was) then that is wholly inappropriate threatening.

  • Richard Underhill 7th Jun '15 - 12:47pm

    During the Callaghan government Labour MP Michael Foot was sent to see the Liberal MPs and reportedly returned saying they were “a rabble”. Not so now.
    The merger with the SDP has provided a more deliberative policy making process for federal conference and a preamble to the constitution which has stood the test of time.
    A Liberal whip is not a contradiction in terms, but the term “whip” with its reference to fox-hunting, is old fashioned. There is such a broad range of issues to deal with these days that some guidance should be helpful, not least to be aware of splits in other parties.
    Please also see the repeats of Yes Minister, some of which is still relevant.

  • “Guidance” can be achieved by regular meetings and consensus (with dissent) rather than a Party policy imposed by the leadership downwards.

  • Tony Greaves 7th Jun '15 - 1:18pm

    The preamble to the constitution is of course a very (social) Liberal document – and the first part which everyone quotes derives directly from the Liberal Party constitution.

    I am pleased to report that whipping in the Lords is an altogether more relaxed matter – well organised but much more relaxed. It’s more about information than instruction, and this was so even during the Coalition.

    Tony Greavesd

  • peter tyzack 8th Jun '15 - 10:12am

    or, as in our case, David-1, Party policy imposed by the membership via conference decision upwards. Lets get back to making it work that way..

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