The LPC and “open” primaries

I have written a bit in the past on the idea of political parties in Canada adopting the concept of “open primaries”. I argued that this would help to empower backbench MPs and then commented on a proposal put forward by Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson that Canada’s federal Liberal Party consider open primaries to choose its next leader.

Recently, it was announced that the Liberal Party was indeed considering such a move. The announcement met with rather mixed reviews in the media, including on social media such as Twitter. What was interesting was that many were condemning the idea even before full details had emerged. It wasn’t until later in the week that the Liberal Party released documentation explaining the proposal in any sort of detail.

Read more

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Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 2

(Note: Back in April of this year, I wrote about Direct Party and Representative Voting, an electoral voting system invented by Stephen Johnson. That post continues to get regular hits on this blog, and recently, Mr. Johnson contacted me asking if I would be interested in revisiting the topic. He provided me with a few more points addressing some of the questions I had raised in my original post. I invited Mr. Johnson to contribute a post to this blog, and he accepted. This is the second of two posts. Click here to read Part 1.)

Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 2

by guest blogger Stephen Johnson

Can DPR Voting claim that no votes are wasted?

In DPR Voting you cast your Party vote for the party you support and this determines which party (or parties) form the Government. You can vote for the party of choice whether or not there is a party candidate standing in the constituency. The Party votes are added up nationwide and then the percentage of votes of each party is used to determine the total number of votes each party has in the parliament. This means that every vote makes a mathematical difference to the result of the election and determines the number of votes each party will have in the parliament regardless of where the vote is cast. The mathematical consequence of percentages is that if one party gets one extra vote the percentage of the total vote for that party increases and the percentages for all the other parties is reduced. There are no longer any marginal constituencies, as there are in the FPTP system. Every vote in every constituency is equally important. Your vote makes a real difference to the party you vote for, and for many people this is the real purpose of going out to vote.

Read more

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Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 1

(Note: Back in April of this year, I wrote about Direct Party and Representative Voting, an electoral voting system invented by Stephen Johnson. That post continues to get regular hits on this blog, and recently, Mr. Johnson contacted me asking if I would be interested in revisiting the topic. He provided me with a few more points addressing some of the questions I had raised in my original post. I invited Mr. Johnson to contribute a post to this blog, and he accepted. This is the first of two posts, you can read Part 2 here. The views expressed below are Mr. Johnson’s.)

Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 1

by guest blogger Stephen Johnson

The functioning of our democracy depends in part on the acceptance by the people of the way the electoral system works.  This blog (April, 2011) reviewed Direct Party and Representative Voting, a new proportional electoral system, and found some merit and some shortcomings. Stephen Johnson argues that the system deserves a closer look as a PR system to replace ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP). Read more

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Some interesting links

1. The Big Society

The Canadian media has recently been reporting that the current Conservative Government is considering emulating the UK Coalition Government in adopting David Cameron’s Big Society. Some of what has been written here in Canada is critical of this, which is their perogative, but I found that they often failed to adequately explain the plan. See, for example, this post by Murray Dobbin, in which he dimisses the initiative as “social engineering from the right” and pointing out that the Big Society “scam” has been “widely ridiculed” but makes little effort to explain how it’s supposed to work. I am not argueing for or against this initiative, but I did think some Canadians (and perhaps some Brits) might be interested in learning more about it via David Cameron himself. Cameron appeared before the UK House of Commons Liaison Committee earlier this week and answered questions on a variety of issues, but a lot of the focus was on the Big Society. Canadians unfamiliar with the UK will not always understand exactly what he is talking about or referring to, but there is still enough information provided to perhaps provide some insight into what Cameron hopes the Big Society will be. You can either watch proceedings here, or read a transcript.

As a side note, this might be of added interest to Canadians who are likely to find the sight of a PM answering questions before a House of Commons committee for 90 minutes a rather mind-boggling affair.

2. New Zealand referendum on its electoral system

New Zealand adopted Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and in the 2008 election, the National Party promised to hold another referendum asking New Zealanders if they were satisfied with MMP or if they wished to change it. That referendum will take place on 26 November, and Australian elections expert and blogger Antony Green will be going to New Zealand for the last week of the campaign and will provide more details on the referendum and the election over the next two weeks. His first post on the referendum looks at New Zealand’s view of Preferential Voting, which is the voting system Australia uses. Those interested in electoral reform may want to bookmark Antony’s blog to keep track of his future posts. For those unfamiliar with the debate in New Zealand, you might find this piece of interest.

3. Rules of Royal Succession

At the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, the leaders of the member nations agreed to change the succession rules and give female members of the Royal Family the same rights to the throne as men, and to end the ban on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. This hasn’t prompted much debate in Canada, but if you’re interested in the constitutional aspects of these changes, you might find this meeting of the UK House of Commons Constitutional and Political Reform Committee worth a listen. The witnesses are Professor Robert Blackburn, Kings College London, and Dr Robert Morris, Constitution Unit, University College London. While most of the discussion is focused on the UK, they do raise some of the issues facing Commonwealth jurisdictions, including Canada.

4. A UK Clarity Act?

According to this article in the Independent, the UK is considering adopting its own version of Canada’s Clarity Act in order to counter the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP)’s drive towards a referendum on independence for Scotland.

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Saskatchewan 2011 Political Party Platform comparisons

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Saskatchewan election (7 November 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

Saskatchewan Political Party Platform comparisons:

Platform comparison from Canadian Voter

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Report on 2010 elections for positions in the House

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report on 31 October 2011, which reviewed the elections held, for the first time, in most cases, to fill various positions in the House. It is an interesting report as it provides more detailed information into how exactly these elections proceeded.

In the dying months of the previous parliament, the House of Commons adopted many of the recommendations of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (the Wright Committee). These recommendations were implemented for the first time in the new Parliament elected in May 2010.

Among the changes introduced were first time elections for the Deputy Speakers of the House, the chairs of the main select committees and the chair and members of the new Backbench Business Committee, and a new system adopted by the parties to elect their members of the relevant select committees. While the entire report is interesting, I will focus on the elections affecting select committees.

To recap for those who don’t know, one of the recommendations of Wright Committee adopted in March 2010 and implemented for the first time following the May 2010 general election was the election of the chairs of the major select committees. Previously, this process had been a private arrangement between the party Whips. Standing Order No. 122B outlines a three stage process:

  1. The Speaker writes to the party leaders indicating the proportion of chairs of select committees falling to each party based on the composition of the House following the election;
  2. The House agrees to a motion tabled in the names of the leaders of all parties entitled to one of more chairs specifying to which party each chair is allocated;
  3. Two weeks later, ballots are held for each of the posts, except in cases where only one candidate has come forward, in which case they are declared elected without a ballot. The vote is conducted using the Alternative Vote system (preferential ballot), meaning MPs rank the candidates in order of preference.

What happened in May 2010

A total of 24 committee chair positions were open for election. Of these, 8 were elected unopposed and 16 were contested and decided by secret ballot. The allocation of chairs between the parties, as stated above, follows the convention of mirroring the party breakdown in the House. The Speaker sent a letter indicating the proportion each party was entitled to and was arithmetically correct, but the motion tabled by the party leaders was not, nor does it have to be. The motion allocated one fewer chair to Labour and one more to the Conservatives than would have been the case if the figures supplied by the Speaker had been strictly followed.

Members nominated for a committee chair position engaged in rather vigorous campaigning. One of the main problems faced by candidates was making themselves known to new MPs who weren’t familiar with their record in the House or past work on committees. The volume of communication sent out by some candidates even overloaded the email system. This went on for the two week period between the House agreeing to the motion tabled by the party leaders and the actual ballot date. As mentioned, AV is used, since it eliminates the need for subsequent ballots and it ensures that the winning candidate has the support of more than half of those voting.

Once the committee chairs were elected, committee membership was elected. The Wright Committee had proposed that the members of select committees should be elected by secret ballot by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House and using transparent democratic means. The House would then endorse the results.

In 2010, the process of internal party elections was carried out after the election of the chairs. Once complete, the party Whips submitted a list of names for each committee to the Committee of Selection and the House agreed to the formal motions to nominate the select committees. Little information was published as to how the division of seats between the parties was made nor on the method used for election within each party. The Labour Party asked Members to nominate themselves for a select committee. Those who had applied for an undersubscribed committee or where the number of candidates matched the number of vacancies were declared elected unopposed. They then held a two-stage election process with elections for the vacancies on the 12 most subscribed committees followed by an election for the rest of the vacancies.

The Conservatives adopted a similar process to Labour. The process of administering the election will handed over from the Whips, who ran the contest in 2010, to the 1922 Committee for future elections.

The Liberal Democrats were awarded a number of select committee places in accordance with their party strength. Interested members signed up for vacancies and there was no need for ballots.

Committee Recommendations

After reviewing the election process for committee chairs, the Procedure Committee made a few recommendations. The members of minority parties complained that they were excluded from even standing for a post as a select committee chair. While the Committee sympathised, they did not recommend a change to the election process for select committee chairs.

Other members complained about the volume of communications issued by candidates in contested elections, arguing for more control over how MPs campaigned. Others called for opportunities for members to meet with and hear from the candidates for each post, which would have been very helpful for the newly-elected MPs. The Committee reviewed these issues and in the end decided against more central control over the campaign. Given the number of elections involved, they decided that it would be unwise to lay down rules about how each event should be organised, leaving it instead to the candidates to decide how best to reach out to their fellow MPs.

Another issue raised was the participation of Ministers. Voting for the chairs was open to all MPs, but since the role of select committees is to hold Ministers to account, some suggested that it was not appropriate for Ministers to have a vote in deciding who should undertake that role. The Committee recognized this as a valid concern, but problematic to address. Excluding Ministers from voting would affect the party’s balance of the electorate. Changing the rule to say that Ministers could vote in all elections except those relating to their department might be difficult to police. Instead, the Committee concluded that Minister would be “well-advised to refrain from voting in the election for a chair to scrutinise their own department” but decided that a more formal prohibition would be undesirable.

The Committee also reviewed the use of AV for the vote and decided that it would be best to move from AV to FPTP. The Committee justified this on the following grounds: 1) FPTP is simple and is the voting system MPs are most familiar with and 2) the results from 2010 showed that even in the contests which required more than one round of counting, the candidate who was in the lead on the first count remained there and won. Of the 16 contested elections, seven were decided on the first count, five on the second, three on the third and one required 6 counts. In each case, even the one which went six rounds of counting, the winning candidate was ahead by a significant margin in the first round of counting and the subsequent rounds only served to increase their lead until they surpassed the 50% mark.

I have to say that I find this recommendation a bit problematic, given the reasons the Committee provides to justify it. First, AV is hardly that much more complicated than FPTP. While I can understand that a newly-elected MP might find it difficult to rank several candidates, none of whom he or she knows at all, they probably would find it as difficult to vote for a single candidate among a list of names that they don’t know at all. As for the second reason provided, simply because the elections held in June 2010 weren’t that close, this doesn’t mean that in future years, there won’t be much closer races. At least with AV, the eventual winner will be the candidate who eventually receives 50% of the vote. With FPTP, if there are very close races for some chair positions, the winning candidate may well be elected by a bare majority of the vote – maybe even one vote.

In my view, this would be problematic when electing the chair of a select committee. I would think that it would be preferable to have a chair who had the backing of an overall majority of his or her fellow MPs, even if that means they are the “compromise” candidate, than to end up with a chair who was narrowly elected over another candidate, and given the vote totals, very likely elected only by their own party, with no support (or barely any support) from members of other parties, which is exactly what could happen using FPTP. The chairs of select committees have to represent and answer to the House, not simply their party caucus. The whole point of moving away from Whip-appointed chairs to House elected chairs was to make the committees more independent and accountable. FPTP could very well undermine this in the event of a very hotly-contested race between several candidates.

Because FPTP was never meant to be used in instances where there are more than two candidates running, I think the Committee is making a mistake in recommending that AV be dropped in favour of FPTP for the election of committee chairs. Alternatively, they could recommend that if there are only two candidates contesting for one position, FPTP could be used since one candidate will inevitably end up with more than 50% of the vote, but in instances where there are three or more candidates, AV be used to ensure that the eventual winner have majority support of the House.

Regarding the election of committee membership, the Procedure Committee got little feedback from members and thus concluded that there was little evidence that any changes were needed. However, they did recommend that it would be more in keeping with the “spirit of the Wright reforms” if each party published details of the process by which it elected its members to select committees.

As stated at the outset, the report covers much more than simply the elections for Select Committee chairs and members. I strongly recommend readers have a look at the report in its entirety.

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On pairing

Pairing is a parliamentary practice whereby two members of parliament from opposing political parties may agree to abstain where one member is unable to vote, due to other commitments, illness, travel problems, etc. The rationale behind the practice is to maintain the relative distribution of seats in the House so that a party’s strength is based on who was elected, not which MPs are ill that day, or had their flight delayed.

There are slight variations in how pairing is organized in different jurisdictions.

UK House of Commons

As explained on the UK Parliament website,

Pairing is an arrangement where an MP of one party agrees with an MP of an opposing party not to vote in a particular division. This gives both MPs the opportunity not to attend. Pairing is an informal arrangement and is not recognised by the House of Commons’ rules. Such arrangements have to be registered with the whips who check that the agreement is stuck to. Pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance but pairings can last for months or years.

There have been times, however, where one or more of the parties have refused to participate in pairing arrangements. In December 1996, for example, Labour and the Liberal Democrats discovered that the Tories had been cheating by pairing the same three Conservative MPs with three Labour MPs and three Liberal Democrat MPs. Because of that, the two opposition parties decided to withdraw from all pairing arrangements beginning in January 1997.

It is not clear how long this protest lasted – perhaps only until the end of that parliament since in the 1997 general election, Labour were elected with a huge majority. Pairing is currently practiced by all three of the major parties in the UK House of Commons, but only, as stated above, for votes that aren’t of great importance (one or two line whips).

Canada House of Commons

In the Canadian House of Commons, pairing did not have any official recognition up until 1991. It was considered a private arrangement between Members. In 1991, the Standing Orders were modified to provide for the establishment of a Register of Paired Members, which is kept at the Table. The actual pairing arrangements are arrived at by the party Whips, and Members who will not be participating in any recorded divisions on a given day will have their names entered into the Register by their respective party Whips. These pairings Members are published in the Debates (Hansard) and in the Journals immediately following the entry for any recorded division held on that day.

While this process has formalized pairing to a degree, it still remains largely a private arrangement between the parties, and nothing can be done if a paired Member “forgets” that they were paired and votes. Also, unlike in the UK, the practice in the Canadian House of Commons is that pairings are agreed to on an ad hoc basis, that is, vote by vote. There aren’t any long-term pairing agreements which may last months or years, as occurs in the UK House of Commons. As well, since there is no distinction between one-line, two-line and three-line whips in the Canadian House of Commons, the parties can agree to pairing arrangements on any type of vote, including those of “great political importance”.

Pairing most commonly occurs in the Canadian House of Commons during hung parliaments, when there is a minority government in place. In such instances, the numerical balance between the parties matters far more, and it becomes far more important that the relative voting strengths of the parties is maintained. When one party forms a majority government, pairing is much less common.

Australia House of Representatives

As in the UK and Canada, pairing in the Australian House of Representatives is an unofficial arrangement organized by the party Whips. As in the UK, Members have at times been paired not only on particular questions or one sitting, but sometimes for extended periods. This has even included pairing the Prime Minister with the Leader of the Opposition. As in Canada, pairing is more common when the relative strength of the parties is much closer. Also like Canada, pairing is allowed on crucial votes, and arranging pairings on key votes can be a very protracted and disorderly affair. Parties might also pull out of pairing arrangements, for various reasons:

Pairs have been cancelled by the Government because of the need for an absolute majority to pass a bill to alter the Constitution. The Opposition has cancelled the arrangements for the remainder of the session as a consequence of its view on the manner in which the proceedings of the House were being conducted. (House of Representatives Practice, p. 279)

New Zealand Parliament

Pairing was abolished in the New Zealand Parliament in 1996, following the introduction of new Standing Orders to accommodate the change to the MMP voting system. MPs no longer have to be in the chamber at the time of voting. Parties declare their total votes including the ‘proxy’ votes of those away.

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MP confusion over e-petitions

While listening to the debate in the UK House of Commons on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on membership in the EU, I was struck by regularly repeated claims by MPs concerning the role that petitions, particularly e-petitions, played in instigating the debate.

Many MPs stated that the day’s debate came about thanks to the Government’s own e-petitions scheme, triggered by an e-petition gaining over 100,000 signatures. For example:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?


Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I understand that I have only five minutes, so I will take only two interventions—if people want to intervene—if colleagues do not mind.

I would like to address first the process and principle of the motion and then present-day Europe, if colleagues will forgive the alliteration. The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue. The Backbench Business Committee then decided that to be the right debate to bring before Parliament and, as Members will know, that Committee is elected by the House. This debate has not been brought about by a small or large number of Conservative Back Benchers, therefore; it is a response to the will and the voice of the British people.


Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): (…) Let us not forget, as many Members have said, that this issue has reached us today not only because of the 100,000 e-petition signatories, but because of the many organisations that have brought together different types of petition and written to people. It is not just about e-petitions.


Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate. It is, in fact, a historic debate because it is the first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system. I believe that that system is a wonderful one; it is absolutely right to hold this debate today. I also think it right in principle that this House should debate issues of particular importance to the public, of which this is one.

and finally:

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why this was the second most popular issue on the e-petitions list?

Kris Hopkins: As I said in response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), if there is such support for the matter, we should campaign to ensure that it is part of our party’s next election manifesto.

You get the idea – these samples are from the online Hansard of the debate, which you can access here.

The problem is, these statements aren’t exactly accurate, and some are simply false.

Despite what many MPs claimed, there was no e-petition calling for a referendum on the EU on the official Government E-Petitions website which garnered over 100,000 signatures. There were many separate petitions, both traditional paper and electronic, which together surpassed 100,000 signatures, but these were collected independently of the official e-petitions scheme. In fact, a campaign to petition for a referendum on the EU began in March of this year, over four months before launch of the Government e-petitions scheme at the end of July of this year.

So if there was no single e-petition calling for an EU referendum on the Government e-petitions site that had over 100,000 signatures,  how did the debate come about?

The Backbench Business Committee, which is responsible for scheduling debates on backbench business, issued a press release explaining how the EU referendum debate came about:

The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business committee following a representation by Mr David Nuttall MP at a public meeting of the committee on 18 October 2011. A large number of backbench Members indicated their support for the debate. This issue has also been raised in public petitions.

This issue has also been raised by various organisations through both paper and online petitions. Between them they have collected more than 100,000 names.

In other words, the Committee decided to schedule the debate primarily because a backbench Member, Mr. Nuttall, requested one, and had the backing of  “a large number of backbench Members”. That there were also petitions in support of such a debate was incidental to, not the driving force behind, the decision to schedule the debate. Mr. Nuttall may well have decided to make the representation to the Committee because of the number of petitions in support of a referendum on EU membership, but the Committee’s decision was based on his representation and support from other MPs for such a debate, not because of various petitions.

Queries to this blog have revealed that there is a fair bit of confusion about the whole e-petitions scheme amongst the general public in the UK. It is somewhat disheartening to see that some MPs also don’t really seem to grasp how it works. For example, in the first quote above, Nadine Dorries refers to “an e-petition to 10 Downing street”. Ms. Dorries is perhaps confused with the e-petitions scheme that had been set up in November 2006 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the 10 Downing St. website, which was shut down by the Coalition Government just after it took office last year.

MP Mark Pritchard stated: “The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue.” As mentioned above, this is completely false. The petitions, both paper and electronic, in favour of an EU referendum were in circulation before the launch of the new HM Government e-petition’s website. I am not disputing that these petitions got over 100,000 signatures, but they weren’t related to the “Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions”, nor are they the origins of the debate.

Mr Davies claims that the EU referendum debate was the “first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system”. Again, this is false. A backbench debate was held only a week earlier (17 October 2011) on the issue of the release of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough tragedy – which was the subject of an e-petition on the Government e-petition site which garnered over 100,000 signatures. That was the first debate triggered by the public through the petitions system, as it clearly states on the press release issued by the Backbench Business Committee.

As for Mr. Tomlinson’s comment that the EU petition is supposedly the “second most popular issue on the e-petition list”,  that is simply false. The second most popular issue on the e-petitions list (assuming he is referring to the official Government e-petitions site and not some independent e-petitions site), is the e-petitions calling for full disclosure of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough disaster mentioned above. The first e-petition mentioning a referendum on the EU is seventh on the list.

I can appreciate that debates triggered by e-petitions are a very new development for the UK House of Commons, and so it is not entirely surprising that some MPs seem rather confused about the process. I do hope some effort is made to clarify exactly how the e-petitions scheme works, so that in the future, MPs will not further add to the misinformation and misunderstanding already out there.

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On toeing the party line: three-line whips

(Note: See this post for statistics on how often Canadian MPs vote with their party.)

In an earlier post, I discussed how UK MPs tend to be far more rebellious than their Canadian counterparts, frequently voting against their own party. In that post, I noted that large scale rebellions were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in Canada; party discipline is much, much stronger in Canada (and from what I understand, in Australia too).

Tomorrow (24 October 2011) there will be a Backbench Business debate on holding a referendum on British membership of the EU. The motion, from Conservative MP David Nuttall reads: “This House calls upon the government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the united Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation.”

The debate was originally scheduled for Thursday (27 October) but due to the growing support by Conservative backbenchers for the motion, it was moved to Monday to allow the Prime Minister and other front-bench MPs to attend and participate. The Conservative Party leadership is imposing a three-line whip to defeat the motion, which many Conservative MPs are promising to defy.

The concept of a “three-line whip” was new to me. While whipped votes are the norm in Canada, I’d never heard of one described as a “three-line” whip. The reason for that is because it has never really been implemented here, except for one brief experiment.


A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party’s “enforcers”, who typically offer inducements and threaten punishments for party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy. A whip’s role is also to ensure that the elected representatives of their party are in attendance when important votes are taken. The usage comes from the hunting term whipping in, i.e. preventing hounds from wandering away from the pack. Hence a whipped vote is one where Members of a given party are told how they will vote, and if they choose to not obey the whip’s instructions, will be punished by the party. Punishment can range from being removed from a Committee they sit on, or having to resign any frontbench position they hold, or even being expelled from caucus and forced to sit as an independent.

In the United Kingdom, there are three categories of whip that are issued on particular business. These whips are issued to MPs in the form of a letter outlining the Parliamentary schedule, with a sentence such as “Your attendance is absolutely essential” next to each debate in which there will be a vote, underlined one, two or three times according to the severity of the whip:

  • A single-line whip is a guide to what the party’s policy would indicate, and notification of when the vote is expected to take place; this is non-binding for attendance or voting.
  • A two-line whip, sometimes known as a double-line whip, is an instruction to attend and vote; partially binding for voting, attendance required unless prior permission given by the whip.
  • A three-line whip is a strict instruction to attend and vote, breach of which would normally have serious consequences. Permission not to attend may be given by the whip, but a serious reason is needed. Breach of a three-line whip can lead to expulsion from the parliamentary political group in extreme circumstances and may lead to expulsion from the party. Consequently, three-line whips are generally only issued on key issues, such as votes of confidence and supply. The nature of three-line whips and the potential punishments for revolt vary dramatically among parties and legislatures.

A similar arrangement was experimented with by the Liberal Party of Canada during the Government of Prime Minister Paul Martin as part of its “Action Plan for Democratic Reform“. According to Paul E. J. Thomas, the Action Plan for Democratic Reform included categories of whip:

A three-line whip voting system refers to the extent to which the government sees a bill as a matter of confidence. Under the system, bills with a one-line whip are considered to be “free votes” for all members, meaning that the government takes no position on the issue and the outcome of the vote will not affect the Parliament’s confidence in the government. On two-line votes the cabinet takes a position, but government backbenchers are not obliged to follow it and the outcome again does not affect the government’s survival. Lastly, the three-line whip is saved for key parts of the government’s legislative agenda that are matters of confidence on which the government can fall. As such, all MPs from the governing party are expected to toe the party line.

As you can see, the Liberal Party’s three-line whip system differed somewhat from its UK counterpart. One-line whips introduced by the Liberals were free votes, the Government took no position on the issue, while in the UK, the party’s policy is stated, but Members are free to vote as they wish. Liberal two-line whips applied to cabinet members only – backbench members were still free to vote as they wished, while in the UK it is partially binding for voting. Three-line whips were pretty much the same – Liberal MPs were expected to attend the vote and vote as the party dictated they should, the same as in the UK.

The three-line whip experiment was short-lived and applied only to the 3rd session of the 37th Parliament, and the 38th Parliament, and only to the Liberal Party, which formed the Government during that period. The reality in Canada is that almost all votes in the House, for all parties, would be considered three-line whips. From the report It’s My Party: Political Dysfunction Reconsidered:

The  Canadian  parliamentary  system  has a tradition of strict party discipline, meaning that for the majority of votes in the House of Commons, MPs vote with their political party. Party leaders enforce this discipline so they can be as certain as possible about whether legislation will pass a vote. It also helps the public hold parties to account at election time: if all members of a party vote in a particular way, then the party’s positions are ostensibly clearer to the electorate. Voting records indicate that most MPs vote with their party nearly all of the time, so it was a surprise how many MPs emphasized the times they didn’t agree with their party.

Samara Canada found, through exit interviews conducted with MPs who had decided not to seek re-election in the May 2011 election that:

 One MP recalled how difficult a particular vote was for him, and other members of his party. “There was a pounding in caucus. We had to vote for this. And I did. I shouldn’t have. But I saw people who were much more committed to [the issue] than I, getting up to vote and crying because they had to vote for it,” he said.

Most MPs described not really understanding how a party’s position on most issues was determined. “Virtually all MPs, with the exception of maybe the whips, go into the House of Commons with a bill and 18 to 20 amendments, and don’t have a damned clue of what the amendments say,” said one MP.

Furthermore, many said it was impossible to keep track of the bills on which they were called to vote. “I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That’s not necessarily my weakness, that’s just the reality,” one MP said.

Even the one item of business in the Canadian House of Commons which is supposed to allow MPs free votes, Private Members’ Bills, is largely whipped:

Private members’ bills are traditionally free votes and are introduced into the House by individual backbench MPs from any party, rather than by the government. However, even in this ostensibly independent area, the MPs reported heavy party intervention.

One Bloc MP said his party still pressured MPs when facing a free vote. “There are no real free votes. The political parties will say that it’s a free vote to seem democratic, but if the leader has an opinion on it, he’s going to put pressure on the membership so that you think like him,” he said.

A New Democrat MP expressed frustration that the governing parties rarely adhered to free votes once in power. “All these guys who said they were for free votes end up voting against private member’s business because their government does not want it to happen,” he said.

What makes the use of the three-line whip with regards to Monday’s vote on the motion calling for a referendum on the EU particularly interesting is that this is an item of backbench business, and second, the outcome isn’t binding on the Government. Therefore, there is no real need to whip the vote, since the Government is under no obligation to act if the outcome is in favour of a referendum. Of course, if the motion passes by a large margin, and the Government chooses to ignore the outcome, the optics won’t look very good. The party leadership is justifying the three-line whip saying that the motion is “contrary to Government policy.” Still, resorting to a three-line whip does seem rather heavy-handed. And it’s not only Prime Minister David Cameron facing dissent from his MPs; Opposition Leader Ed Milliband has instructed his party to vote against the motion, but many Labour MPs have said they will vote in favour. you can see a complete list of MPs who’ve signed the motion, indicating they will vote in favour of it, here.

The motion will most likely be defeated, since the Coalition Government enjoys a significant working majority in the House, as explained in this post. Still, it promises to be an interesting debate and vote. You can watch the debate live online here. Debate could start at about 3:30 GMT (10:30 EST), but if there are any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements, the start time will be pushed back.

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