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 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.
The term "whip" is also used to mean:
- the voting instructions issued to members by the whip, or
- in the UK and Ireland, a party's endorsement of a member of parliament (MP) or a Teachta Dála (TD); to "withdraw the whip" is to expel an MP or TD from his or her parliamentary party. (The elected member in question would retain his or her parliamentary seat, as an independent, i.e. not associated with any parliamentary party. However, in the Irish system, the party retains all funding and staffing resources allocated to it on behalf of that member for the duration of the parliamentary term.)
The expression 'whip' in its parliamentary context has its origins in hunting terminology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term "whipper-in" as, "a huntsman's assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them back with the whip into the main body of the pack.". According to that dictionary, the first recorded use of the term "whipper-in" in the parliamentary sense occurs in 1772. However, P.D.G Thomas in House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century cites two examples of the use of the term that pre-date 1772.
"It was within the context of such summonses to members out of town that the first known Parliamentary instance of the use of the term ‘whip’ occurred. In the debate of 8 May 1769 on a petition from some Middlesex freeholders against the seating of Henry Luttrell instead of John Wilkes, Edmund Burke mentioned that the ministry had sent for their friends to the north and to Paris, ‘whipping them in, than which, he said, there could not be a better phrase’. Although Burke's particular emphasis on the expression implied its comparative novelty, the hunting term had been used in this political context for at least a generation: on 18 November 1742 Heneage Finch remarked in a letter to Lord Malton that ‘the Whigs for once in their lives have whipped in better than the Tories’."
In the Parliament of Australia, as well as in the parliaments of the six states and two self-governing territories, all political parties have whips to ensure party discipline and carry out a variety of other functions on behalf of the party leadership. The most important function of the whip's office is to ensure that all members and senators are present to take part in votes in the chamber (maintaining quorum and preventing censure motions). Unlike in the United Kingdom, Australian whips do not hold official office, but they are recognised for parliamentary purposes. In practice, Australian whips play a lesser role than their counterparts in the United Kingdom, as party discipline in Australia tends to be tighter.
Their roles in the chamber include taking divisions, and maintaining a "pairs book" which controls the ability of members and senators to leave the parliament building during sittings, as well as the entitlement to be absent during divisions.
Liberal Party whips are appointed by the leader of the party, while Australian Labor Party whips are elected by the Caucus. For Labor and the Liberals, the chief whip is assisted by two deputy whips.
Similar arrangements exist in the state and territory parliaments.
Whips exist for all parliamentary parties in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. The government chief whip is normally a Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, and attends cabinet meetings. The whips of each house meet weekly to set the agenda for the next week's business. The Technical Group in the Dáil and the analogous Independent groups in the Seanad nominate whips to attend these meetings even though there is no party line for their whips to enforce. Whips also coordinate pairing.
The timing of most votes are difficult to predict and TDs are expected to stay within earshot of the division bell at all times. All TDs are required to vote with their party and to earn permission if they will to be absent from a vote. Free votes are not a feature of the Irish parliamentary tradition.
From 1998, whips and assistant whips may be entitled to an allowance on top of their base legislator's salary. In 2011, these allowances varied proportional to the size of the group, with Fianna Fáil's Dáil whip's allowance the highest at €19,000.
In Greece, party discipline is normally very strict. However, a few governments have collapsed despite this strictness. The role of the whip is usually exercised by the party leader but Kostas Karamanlis, the prime minister from 2004 to 2009 and former leader of the New Democracy party, mostly used Giannis Tragakis, General Secretary of his party parliamentary group, as a whip. Until November 2008, New Democracy, Karamanlis' party, had 152 MPs out of 300. When Petros Tatoulis, MP for Arcadia Prefecture, stated that Karamanlis was guilty of a few political scandals, Karamanlis immediately expelled him from both the parliamentary group and the party, as a result giving New Democracy a majority of only one seat.
In India, the concept of the whip was inherited from colonial British rule. Every major political party appoints a whip who is responsible for the party's discipline and behaviour on the floor of the house. Usually, he/she directs the party members to stick to the party's stand on certain issues and directs them to vote as per the direction of senior party members. However, there are some cases such as Indian presidential elections where whips cannot direct a member of parliament or member of legislative assembly on whom to vote.
In New Zealand, the concept of the whip was inherited from British rule. All political parties that have four or more members in Parliament have at least one party whip, although Green Party whips are called musterers. Parties with 25 to 44 members are allowed two whips (one senior and one junior), and parties with 45 or more members are entitled to three whips (one senior and two junior).
Whips act in an administrative role, making sure members of their party are in the debating chamber when required and organising members of their party to speak during debates. Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, divisions which require all members in the chamber to vote by taking sides (termed a personal vote) are rarely used, except for conscience issues. Instead, one of the party's whips votes on behalf of all the members of their party, by declaring how many members are in favour and/or how many members are opposed. They also cast proxy votes for single-member parties whose member is not in the chamber at the time of the vote, and also cast proxy vote during personal votes for absent members of their parties and for absent members of associated single-member parties.
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Although South Africa uses a proportional representation system, the concept of a political party whip, which was inherited from colonial British rule, has been maintained.
In British politics, the chief whip of the governing party in the House of Commons is customarily appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury so that the incumbent, who represents the whips in general, has a seat and a voice in the Cabinet. By virtue of holding the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the government chief whip has an official residence at 12 Downing Street, although the chief whip's office is currently located at 9 Downing Street. Whips report to the prime minister on any possible backbench revolts and the general opinion of MPs within the party, and upon the exercise of the patronage, which is used to motivate and reward loyalty.
In the United Kingdom, there are three categories of whip that are issued on particular business. An express instruction on how to vote could constitute a breach of parliamentary privilege, so the party's wishes are expressed unequivocally but indirectly. 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. Disobeying a three-line whip is a newsworthy event, indicating as it does a potential mutiny; an example was the decision on 10 July 2012 by 91 Conservative MPs to vote against Prime Minister David Cameron on the issue of reform of the House of Lords.
In the United States there are legislatures at the local (city councils, town councils, county boards, etc.), state, and federal levels. The federal legislature (Congress), state legislatures, and many county and city legislative bodies are divided along party lines and have whips, as well as majority and minority leaders. Similarly, the whip may also be known as the assistant majority or assistant minority leader.
Both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and Senate, have majority and minority whips. They in turn have subordinate "regional" whips. While members of Congress often vote along party lines, the influence of the whip is weaker than in the UK system. One reason is that a considerable amount of money is raised by individual candidates, and members of Congress are almost never ejected from a party. In addition, because preselection of candidates for office is generally done through a primary election open to a wide number of voters, it is difficult for the national party to deselect a member of Congress who defies his party in a way that pleases his or her constituency.
Because members of Congress cannot serve simultaneously in executive positions, a whip in the United States cannot bargain with a member by using as an inducement the possibility of promotion or demotion in a sitting administration. There is, however, a highly structured committee system in both houses of Congress, and a whip may be able to use promotion or demotion within that system instead. In the House of Representatives, the influence of a single member individually is relatively small and therefore depends a great deal on the representative's seniority (i.e., in most cases, on the length of time they have held office).
In the Senate, the majority whip is the third-highest ranking individual in the majority party (the party with the most seats). The majority whip is outranked by the majority leader and, unofficially, the president pro tempore; because the office of president pro tempore is largely honorific and usually given to the longest-serving senator of the majority, the majority whip is in reality the second-ranking senator in the majority conference in terms of actual power. Similarly, in the House, the majority whip is outranked by both the majority leader and the speaker. Unlike the Senate's presiding officer, the Speaker is the leader of his or her party's caucus in the House.
In both the House and the Senate, the minority whip is the second highest-ranking individual in the minority party (the party with the lesser number of legislators in a legislative body), outranked only by the minority leader.
The whip position was first created in the House of Representatives in 1897 by Republican Speaker Thomas Reed, who appointed James A. Tawney as the first whip. The first Democratic whip, Oscar Wilder Underwood, was appointed around 1900. In the Senate, the position was created in 1913 by John W. Kern, chair of the Democratic caucus, when he appointed J. Hamilton Lewis as the first whip, while Republicans later chose James Wadsworth as the party's first in 1915.
Whips in other parts of the world
In most countries not now or formerly under control of the British Empire or part of the Commonwealth of Nations—like most of continental Europe and Asia—the position of whip doesn't officially exist. The whip's responsibilities are mostly exercised by the party leader or the leader of a parliamentary faction themselves.
In popular culture
British author and politician Michael Dobbs wrote a trilogy of books, centred around a fictional party whip named Francis Urqhart, which was dramatised and broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation between 1990 and 1995. The first book in the trilogy, entitled House Of Cards, lent its name to the original UK television series and has also been used as the title of subsequent series based on other countries political systems. In House of Cards, Francis Urqhart is the Chief Whip for the UK Conservative Party and the trilogy charts his ambitious rise through his party's ranks until he becomes Prime Minister.
Another dramatisation based on the US political system was broadcast on US network Netflix between 2013 and 2015. Also entitled House of Cards, the main protagonist is called Frank Underwood who is the House Majority Whip for the US Democratic Party. The series charts Underwood's ambitious rise through his party's ranks until he becomes President. The name Frank Underwood was both an acknowledgement of the original trilogy's protagonist Francis Urqhart and to the US political system itself, as Oscar Underwood was the first ever party whip for the US Democratic party.
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I act as the whip for the Technical Group even though there is no party line to be enforced.
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