OPINION - Andy Burnham: The whipping system is the reason MPs can’t act across party lines

·4-min read
 (Amanda Searle)
(Amanda Searle)

Vote against this footballer’s campaign to feed poor kids — or we’ll cancel that new school in the poorest part of your constituency.

So said a Government whip in late 2020 according to an MP who has now crossed the floor to join the Labour Party. Of all the revelations tumbling out of the court of Boris Johnson, this one stands apart.

It’s not just an indictment of a Government elected on a false promise to “level up” working-class communities but of a political system that is out of time and rotten to the core.

That the education of the kids in the town of Radcliffe in Bury is nothing more than a bargaining chip in a Westminster power play is a shameful state of affairs. It tells you everything that is wrong with the way this country is run.

When Sue Gray’s report is finally published, there will be calls for heads to roll. But there will be far fewer calls for the root-and-branch reform of the system which gave rise to such flagrant abuses of power in No10 or the whips’ office. Why? Because that would mean the inhabitants of SW1A who hold all the power giving it up. And they don’t want to do that.

So, as with every other Westminster scandal before it, some of the personalities will change but the system will stay the same and the circus will roll on until the next scandal.

England is one of the most politically over-centralised countries in the world. Too much power is concentrated in one place and in the hands of too few. But, even within this rarefied world, power is not evenly distributed. The unelected and unaccountable hold more than the elected and that is in large part the product of the antiquated whip system.

When we vote in our MPs, we like to think we are sending people to Westminster to be fearless advocates for our places, independent checks and balances on the executive. The truth is, they are often no more than a rubber stamp for the views of an Establishment that hasn’t got the first clue of what life is like in Radcliffe and has no intention of finding out.

When the Government imposes a “three-line whip”, MPs of the governing party are expected to nod through the measures drawn up by said Establishment with the minor input of a minister or two. If they don’t, they can be met with all kinds of threats. This has been true under all governments but seems to have gone to a new level — as evidenced by the decision of William Wragg MP to call in the police.

Perhaps this unprecedented move will create the conditions for change. I hope so. If we are serious about levelling up this country, we need to take power out of Westminster and change how it works within it. It is outrageous that decisions over the building of new schools are tied up in the machinations of the tearooms.

Instead, they should be devolved to England’s regions so that they can be taken properly and on the basis of need, not anything else. But that alone isn’t enough. By abolishing the whip system, we would raise the status of our MPs and let them be what they should be: powerful agents for their places.

In the US, elected representatives have real leverage. Here they don’t —and it shows. The reason why England is so unequal is because Parliament is wired to support the views of the unelected Establishment who think life revolves around the Golden Triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

To illustrate my point, consider the HS2 Bill which has just landed in Parliament. It lays the foundations for the Government’s rail plan in the North. I don’t think there’s a single Northern MP of any party who, in their heart of hearts, thinks this is the right plan. If they were freed from the whip system, they would be able to organise across party lines to change it. But that won’t happen. Instead, they will be made to enforce what the Treasury wants rather than what is right for the North.

Defenders of the status quo, of which there are many in both the main parties, will say the whip system is vital to maintaining stability and good government. In response, I would say if any government can’t persuade its own MPs to back a measure voluntarily that should tell you something: it’s a bad idea and needs to be stopped.

Gray’s report will no doubt bring out a good deal of anger about the way our country has been run. Rather than let that report become a “plague on all your houses” verdict, it’s time for reform-minded politicians to get together and direct their energies behind a real programme to level us all up.

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