Frankly, I’d rather have a shambles than manage by fear and intimidation

I read a lot of political commentary by all sorts of people. I’ve been moved to tears, laughter, outrage, exasperation and delight by many of them. It’s taken until today, though, for an article written by a mainstream commentator to make me feel physically sick.

Writing in the Telegraph, John McTernan, former Labour Downing Street insider, describes the tactics of Labour whips:

A Cabinet minister who served in both the Blair and Brown governments retells his first encounter with Labour whips. Newly elected, he was walking through the corridors of the House when he was accosted by one. He was pushed against the wall, his testicles grabbed and twisted sharply – and painfully. “Son, you’ve done nothing to annoy me. Yet. Just think what I’ll do if you cross me.”

He added another anecdote about the day of the Iraq war vote in 2003.

I was in the Commons, drinking with some MPs, on the day that the vote for the Iraq war was passed. “Hear that noise John? It’s limbs being broken.”

But this wasn’t some tell all expose in the hope of making things better. Oh no. McTernan approves of this sort of tactic.

That is how you manage backbenchers.

Politics is a contact sport. If you want to win, you have to play to win. Have a plan. Execute it violently.

in politics you need to be feared or respected. And you need an operation which makes sure that happens

What a horrible, macho culture of intimidation and fear, and the fact that it exists in 21st century Britain is something that worries me greatly. I want the people in my parliament, of all parties, to be original, creative, free-thinking individuals, not just an amorphous blob of lobby fodder. No point in me applying for a job in the Labour whips’ office then.

McTernan’s article contrasted this with the lack of an  effective strategy by the Government on Thursday’s vote on Syria. The inference is that if Alistair Carmichael and George Young had tried the Chinese burn treatment, they might have won through and avoided what he called a shambles.

He doesn’t consider that there might have been a third option, here. I think it might have been better strategic thinking to give the Labour party a motion that they couldn’t vote against to at least keep the door open for future military intervention. I think it’s clear that there wouldn’t have been a majority for actual military intervention in a subsequent vote next week, but there would have been no actual requirement to hold one, either. I would have been very surprised if the Liberal Democrats would have avoided ministerial resignations on a second vote anyway. But if Assad does up the ante in the future, it would have been easier for the Government to bring the issue back.

Ultimately, though, if it’s a choice between Alistair Carmichael’s biscuit tin, and whips going around assaulting people, I’d go for the jaffa cakes every time. That way, you get yourself a lot of goodwill in the long run. We may have our arguments in the Liberal Democrats, but we tend to avoid the toxic display of hatred that we’ve seen from Labour for most of the time I’ve been politically aware. When I first got involved, they were tearing themselves apart over Militant et al. They had a few relatively peaceful years before getting into Government before degenerating into civil war between the Blairites and Brownites and Ed Miliband’s leadership has never been free from internal rancour. Labour whips might pride themselves in winning a few crunch votes, but their team spirit is pretty fragile. Compare and contrast with how this party came together in a crisis at Eastleigh.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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21 Comments

  • The real question is whether any form of “whipping” is consistent with liberal principles. I believe a strong case can be made that the primary obligation of MPs is to the people of their constituencies (all of them, not just the ones who voted for them) and that party solidarity should be a product of shared views rather than imposed from above.

    Had Liberal Democrat MPs not been whipped on votes both recent and distant, the outcomes of many parliamentary votes would have been strikingly different and the dynamics of government utterly different. Of course, Nick Clegg’s reputation among the Tories would have taken quite a beating.

  • my god. That’s assault, pure and simple. I feel sick too

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 31st Aug '13 - 4:53pm

    I’m currently engrossed in Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was probably one of the most effective political operators ever, and what is interesting is that he didn’t use actual physical harm (or even the threat of it) to unite Democrats (which was no easy task in a group containing both Richard Russell and Hubert Humphrey) when he was Senate majority leader.

    He did use his physicality – his sheer size – to reinforce what he was saying, standing very close to people, putting his arm round their shoulders so they couldn’t easily walk away, sitting very close to them. But he was ultimately effective because he had power: power to see that a senator’s campaign would or would not be well funded; power to introduce favourable legislation and make sure it passed (and vice-versa).

    So really having to resort to that sort of violence is not a sign of successful whipping but of desperation, of not having done the groundwork to establish the authority that means that when you say to an MP “you need to vote for this for the good of the party and the country” they know they need to do so.

  • Richard Dean 31st Aug '13 - 4:54pm

    The serial assaults – presumably happening over a number of years and with a number of victims – need to be investigated by the police, particularly given that they represent a threat of corruption of our political system. If it turns out that the accuser has imagined them, he needs to be prosecuted for libel and for wasting police time.

  • @David.
    No, the primary responsibility of MPs should not be to the people of their constituencies.
    It must be to their conscience.
    Being influenced by the mob is just as bad as being influenced by the whips.

  • @Alan: If you stand for election as that sort of MP, then you had better be honest enough to tell the electors: “If elected, I will pay absolutely no attention to public opinion or to your needs; I will shred your letters and refuse to take your calls; I will simply vote however I please, because I believe this seat is all about me and not about you.” Then, if they choose to vote for you on that sort of manifesto, you would be quite free to be “responsible to your conscience” and not to what you call “the mob.”

    If, however, you get elected by saying that you intend to represent your constituents’ interests in Parliament, you have no business doing otherwise. And if your conscience, at some point, does not allow you to vote in what you know or believe to be your constituents’ best interests, then it is incumbent upon you to resign and let the seat fall to someone who can vote in their interests.

  • Richard Dean 31st Aug '13 - 7:29pm

    MPs perhaps have three duties, to represent, relieve, and lead?

    Representing would perhaps normally take precedence when constituents have needs or are well informed and have strong opinions.

    Relieving constituents of the burden of decision making might take precedence when they’re mostly not interested

    Leading might take precedence when constituents are ill-informed and their opinion offends the MPs conscience

  • @David

    99% of issues do not involve a matter of conscience.
    The matters that do involve matters of conscience (war, abortion, gay rights etc.) would very rarely apply differently according to how MPs’ constituency boundaries are drawn.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Sep '13 - 12:00am

    These comments are all about whipping though they do not go much into the interesting questions of how to get cohesion in a Liberal party without using illiberal means.

    But the real issue here is the nature of the Labour Party, which is a thoroughly nasty and illiberal body, always has been and probably always will be. I am on good terms with quite a few Labour peers and occasionally one or other of them will ask me why I don’t join them. I have two short answers (within the terms of their understanding of politics). I am a Liberal, and the Labour Party is not a suitable place for Liberals.

    Tony

  • David Allen 1st Sep '13 - 12:49am

    McTernan sounds like a head case. Is he really describing routine Labour Party behaviour, or is he telling a tall story? Either way he is glorifying violence. Perhaps, indeed, it is an oblique half-apology for his own behaviour?

    Mc Ternan should be put on the spot. Name the name, or withdraw the allegation.

    Miliband should be put on the spot. Does testicle-twisting go on under his leadership? Would any Whip identified as using or having used violence in the job be sacked? If not why not?

  • paul barker 1st Sep '13 - 2:50am

    It was the culture of bullying & intimidation that drove me out of Labour 30 years ago. Its combined with nauseating self-congratulation about how “Right on” they are.
    As Wilson said “Labour is a Moral Crusade or it is nothing.”

  • Debby Hallett 1st Sep '13 - 7:53am

    I wonder what techniques labour whips might use with women backbenchers?

  • @Caron @David

    Well said. Agreed 100%. Party unity must come from shared beliefs and objectives, not imposition from above.

  • McTernan referred to historic incidences, clearly dating before 1997. He also employed euphemism.

    Disingenuous to take the latter literally.

  • Alex Harvey 1st Sep '13 - 3:15pm

    Yet more Lib Dem hypocrisy. You people are heading for oblivion in 2015, and 90% of the public say “good riddance”

  • @ Alex Harvey
    Fortunately Lib Dem Voice comments are from people who use logic and reason rather than unsubstantiated opinion. I find L D Voice highly illuminating of UK’s current processes for utilising political principles and outcomes. Which principles and outcomes are expected by the testicle twisting minority? – or do those users favour supporting the most brutal political view and action if it originates within their party? Seems to me that the Labour and Conservative parties are seeking to put brutality aside and are working towards a more intelligent decision-making as LDs do already.

  • Julian Tisi 1st Sep '13 - 7:56pm

    @ Caron
    Well said, totally agree. How very sad that this goes on in this day and age.

    @ David Allen
    “Miliband should be put on the spot. Does testicle-twisting go on under his leadership? Would any Whip identified as using or having used violence in the job be sacked? If not why not?”
    Totally agree. I’d like to think that one or two MPs would have the ..er.. balls to take on this sort of bullying by threats to resign the whip unless the bully in question apologises or is removed from the Whips office. But a lot to ask an MP particularly early on in their career. Ultimately it’s down to the leader to ensure this doesn’t happen in their party.

    While this sort of bullying is completely out of order I don’t agree with those who suggest we should have no whips at all. Most people vote for someone principally because of their party. It’s only right that there’s some way of ensuring that voters should get MPs voting roughly in line with the party they voted for. But only right that MPs exercise their own judgement and rebel if required from time to time. Voters expect good MPs to reflect their party most of the time but not slavishly.

  • Paul in Twickenham 1st Sep '13 - 8:44pm

    During the 1992 general election a Labour activist threatened to throw me through a window because i told him to desist from breaking electoral law. Fortunately I found his threat ludicrous and was not remotely intimidated, but many people would have been, as presumably intended.

  • Simon Banks 9th Sep '13 - 5:55pm

    David’s argument is one that used to be popular among local Liberal parties that had never had a councillor, or at most had got two elected. Any local council group that tried to exist without any discipline would soon learn a lesson. I can see no argument for treating local councillors and MPs differently in terms of their independence, except that on local councils votes will more often be on very local matters where a councillor’s duty to represent his constituents will be respected.

    Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative MPs and councillors are elected not only as individuals but as members of a party standing on a platform and many activists campaign for them on that understanding. I think most people recognise that on occasion it won’t be possible to deliver all policies, but they wouldn’t expect someone elected as, say, Labour to start behaving as if they had no obligation to Labour.

    On local councils, Liberal Democrats commonly make more allowance for issues of conscience and issues where representing your constituents clashes with the party line, than do the others, but the need once a democratic decision has been taken, to respect it and act in a disciplined way, is very much there.

    Of course, at national level that qualification about a democratic decision is often relevant!

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