The (ab)use of parliamentary whips in the Dáil has been much in the news of late – most recently in the light of an internal survey of Fine Gael TDs by Deputy Eoghan Murphy that was reported in yesterday’s Irish Times (here).
Three-quarters of Fine Gael TDs (74%) favour a relaxation of the whip. That’s quite a lot of support for the proposition by anyone’s reckoning.
On this Blog site there have been many calls for serious engagement with parliamentary reform – moving beyond the tokenistic moves of the current government. The need is for proper parliamentary reform that rebalances the power between Dáil and government, making the government more accountable to the Dáil.
Relaxing the parliamentary whip, which is used more strictly here than in others parliaments in Europe, should be part of this process. But this is different from all the other proposed reforms (such as secret elections for the Ceann Comhairle and committee chairs, etc.) in one very important respect, and that is that there is no need for any change to the Constitution, no need for any new legislation, no need to alter the Dáil standing orders.
All that is needed for the parliamentary whip to be relaxed is for one of the party leaders to announce that they will make this change for their party. The first to make this move will be the one to signal that Dáil reform truly matters for their party. It would only be a matter of time before the other party leaders would be forced to follow suit.
So, which party leader will move first?
6 thoughts on “Enda, Joan, Micheal, Gerry: Who will be first to hang up that whip?”
I still don’t see the whip as being a major part of the problem. Sure it’s used a bit freely, and the punishment for breaking appears excessive, but whips provide important services to backbench TDs (time saving, log-rolling, and protection from lobbying). We didn’t see TDs bursting to vote against pay increases for public servants or unsustainable tax cuts in the 2000s, only to be cut off at the lobby. We did see that TDs were willing to defy the whip when their short term electoral prospects were in peril. I suspect most TDs calculate the costs and benefits wisely.
Life without a whip could be pretty unruly and make governing very difficult. The usual reply is that it will only be relaxed for issues of conscience. But what does that mean? How will that be defined? Surely a cut in child benefit could be an issue of conscience. It would also be a budgetary issue, and a confidence issue.
A more sensible (flexible) approach to the whip system would be useful to limit the control government control of their majority, and it might be in a government’s own self interest to listen to their backbenches a bit more, but there are a lot of other factors that are more important to affect the performance of the Dáil.
There are institutional changes that affect the party whip. Because the effectiveness of the whip depends on the consequences of the whip being applied.
For example, because speaking rights in the Dáil are determined by party grouping, if a TD loses the party whip then they effectively lose the right to speak in parliament. An astonishing state of affairs in a democracy when you think about it.
Similarly, if a TD is ejected from a parliamentary grouping, they are ejected from any committee seats they may hold too because committee seats are effectively assigned to groupings – not individual TDs.
Meanwhile, parties still receive funding for TDs they have ejected. So Dáil rules and standing orders viciously punish TDs who disobey the whip – but do not punish parties for applying the whip.
The suggestion that one of the party leaders should announce that the whip for the parliamentary party group (PPG) will be relaxed in future seems to assume that PPG discipline results from the top-down imposition of draconian rules upon individual TDs who yearn to be free to vote as they please on issues. This is perhaps to misunderstand the nature of political parties and collective action. PPG rules are made by parliamentary parties as a whole and the requirement for voting en bloc – which is pretty uniform across parliamentary systems, despite occasional suggestions that there is something unusual about the Irish parties’ strong line on this – in fact enhances the position of individual TDs rather than weakening it.
Three relevant quotes:
(i) Werner Patzelt, commenting on a survey in Germany showing that many Germans believe that German MPs vote en bloc simply because ‘party bosses’ and the threat of punishment make them do so: this ‘shows little understanding of collective action as a result of rational adaptation to team-building strategic premises’.
(ii) John Aldrich: ‘parties allow members to win more of what they seek, more often and over a longer period’ than if they operated as independents
(ii) David M. Olson: ‘if party power exists, it is denounced; if parties are ineffective, they are derided’.
Advocating the relaxation or abandonment of PPG bloc voting really is a case of ‘be careful what you wish for …’
You raise good points. But forget that the survey in this case is of PPG members, not of the public.
If the position of individual TDs is enhanced by the whip then why do 74% of individual TDs want it relaxed?
To a degree what we have in the Irish parliamentary situation is (to mix disciplines for a moment) a force feedback loop that is leading to excessive amplification.
In theory the party elects the leader and the leader if Taoiseach picks the ministers and the ministers initiate legislation (based on the party’s agreed policy platform usually outlined in the manifesto) and the elected party members vote to accept or modify that legislation under the guidance of the Chief whip (who is also selected by the leader). I believe that the reason so many want the whip loosened is that they have next to no input into the policy platform or the legislation that comes from the ministers department and so with no control at the input stage, they are seeking to alter or shape it later on. However that is much less possible due to the control flow that has been designed into the party and parliamentary workflow.
The recent coverage or lack of it of the establishment of the Collins Institute and where it leaves policy development within political parties shows that we’re all looking in the direction. It’s not necessary a problem with the whip which keeps people in line or those who are riding herd but the line or direction that the herd was started off towards in the first place.
As important as reIaxing the whip is internal party democracy more generally – a willingness on the part of cabinet to engage with backbenchers when formulating policy and be more open to PMBs. It is the combination of staunchly hierarchial internal party democracy with the whip that makes backbenchers so superfluous to the policymaking process.