Friday, May 18, 2012

Toeing the Party line – a bona fide Westminster practice

By:  Choo Sing Chye

 Now that lorry loads (1) of diverse commentaries that had been dispensed by various parties  on the subject of ‘toeing the party line’,  it is unfortunate that none of the Barisan  Nasional’s proxy paper and electronic media had given a plausible argument. 

Much to my dismay, being columnists of the mainstream news media,  they are the top of the heap in the realm of  journalism.   As such, their comments on issues or events should manifest as articulated views or opinions.  And all these should be based on extensive observations without wavering away from the hard facts just to make the National Front smelling like roses and the opposition, like a dumpster. 

It is a shame that the gap between views that are expounded by the columnists from the mainstream media and Ah Boh (grandma) who owns the KFC (Kedai-Kopi Fong Cheong) is so narrow that nobody can tell them apart.  

Of all the people like Ah Boh who serves delicious kaya-bread and white coffee with a liberal dose of her morning news could out-argue any politicians from the BN or the editors/columnists  from the mainstream media.    

Sometimes I wonder why Ah Boh’s KFC is jam-packed in the morning without her wiggling her ‘butt’?  Is it because of the Kaya-bread and white coffee?  Perhaps the uncensored and caffeine induced morning news she dishes out every morning before the sun rises with a big ‘bang’  in the East?

Don’t tell me that these columnists from The Star and other mainstream paper do not know about the business  of the Whip or for the matter, Caucus Loyalty?  Please give me a break, don’t write rubbish!

Now let’s get to the gist of the matter, toeing the party line is not unusual but it is an inherent code of conduct  in the British Parliamentary system (Westminster model). It is not a political add-on!

Toeing the party line is a part and parcel of the British Parliamentary system whether we like it or not. 

There are two conventions that the British uses, a) the Whip and, b) Caucus Loyalty.

The Whip is institutionalised and the practice goes back more than 230 years.  It is primarily use to ensure backbenchers’ obedience.   

In his work on Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, M. Ostrogorski explains that even in the eighteenth century the whips had an important role in distributing political offices.  He refers to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury as the Patronage
Secretary… (2)

The position of the Government Chief Whip has long associations with the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and to this day this is the official title of the Government Chief Whip…(or at times known as) the Patronage Secretary (who again) had another name - that of "Secretary for Political Jobs." This was in fact his principal business.  "It is rather a roguish office," as Wilberforce remarked in the presence of Steele, just as the latter was about to take up the appointment.  Distributing their allowance among the members of the party, the Patronage Secretary brought them up to the vote like a flock of sheep, goaded them on, and had become their "Whipper-in."  The opposite party had to adopt… (3)

Philip Cowley has reported how the Conservative whips were said to have kept a ‘black book’ recording their backbencher’s misdemeanours and he has also described how whips could also revert to ‘good old-fashioned physical bullying’, and what a Labour whip (referring to the practice on his side of the House) has described as a ‘tradition of brutalism’.  (4)
However Rogers and Walters explain that ‘whips also need to be
good personnel managers’, and Cowley has noted that most academic literature on the whips office tends to play down the role of the whip as arm-twister, bully and Machiavelli all rolled into one…stressing instead the more prosaic functions of the whip… (5)

How Whip works :
Every week, whips send out a circular (called 'The Whip') to their MPs or Lords detailing upcoming parliamentary business. Special attention is paid to divisions (where members vote on debates), which are ranked in order of importance by the number of times they are underlined. Important divisions are underlined three times - a 'three-line whip' - and normally apply to major events like the second readings of significant Bills. (6)
Defying a three-line whip is very serious, unbreakable and has occasionally resulted in the whip being withdrawn from an MP or Lord. This means that the Member is effectively expelled from their party (but keeps their seat) and must sit as an independent until the whip is restored. (7)
Critics of parliament were prone to suggest that the Whips exercised a sort of tyranny over private members, and that they had, destroyed the independence of the Commons. (8)

Although, the Whip tends to serve the Front bench, the Front bench itself cannot do or behave whatever way they like.  They too are bound by what the British call - Caucus Loyalty.  This practice has no written rule.  If one breaks with the loyalty of the caucus (Cabinet), one has to resign his ministerial post in a gentlemanly manner – no unfair pot shot.  One fine example is the resignation of  the late Robin Cook from Tony Blair’s cabinet.  His resignation speech was rated as one of the best by the media and his peers. 

His headstone erected in the Grange Edinburgh Cemetery bears the epitaph: "I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war." It is a reference to Cook's strong opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.’  You can find his resignation speech (text):

What is so obviously wrong with these columnists’ arguments is that the  practice of the Whip and Caucus loyalty which characterized the British politics and ours  are not taken into consideration, thus, leaving a big hole in their arguments. 

By bad intentions and most of the time, lack of innate journalistic standard, they argue that the breaking away from the Caucus, especially from the Opposition, as heroic gestures, effectively hiding the fact that the BN itself also practices the same system, even more so, as they are the government of the day.  In fact, the BN Whip is more readily to use the Stick without any qualms when the Carrot is refused.  It is being the nature of practice in our parliamentary system (also the Westminster System) that the Budget tabled by the Minister of Finance must not be defeated  in the House.  If the Budget is defeated in the House, the confidence of the BN is rattled. 

In sum, the first-past-the-post system that we have now is not conducive to the establishment of an independent bloc in Parliament.  Thus,  journalists, politicians and the public who are serious in getting independent minded MPs in parliament should support the Proportional voting system to be instituted.  In this system, seats are allocated to parties or individuals base on the percentage of the votes they get. Moreover every citizen no matter where he or she lives would get one vote and of the same value.   (I have written on this matter here)


1)    The word/idea, ‘loads’ is taken from the Robin Cook’s resignation speech

1)     Page 3 - snpc-02809-PDF (WHIP) from the Library of the House of Commons

2)    Ibid.

3)     Page 5 - snpc-02809-PDF (WHIP) from the Library of the House of Commons

4)    Ibid.

6)    Ibid.,

7)    Ibid.

8)    Page 3  - snpc-02809-PDF (WHIP) from the Library of the House of Commons