Political Whips and the Freedom of Speech: A Review

On the 28th of May, Baroness Jenny Tonge came to speak on the subject of “Political Whips and Freedom of Speech”, at the invitation of York PEN. This invitation followed the political ramifications of controversial statements she made during a conference at Middlesex University. Baroness Tonge resigned her Liberal Democrat whip after she was asked either to apologise for her comments about Israel, or face being de-whipped. 

As a student run group within English PEN, York PEN aims to explore and discuss issues relating to “the freedom to write and the freedom to read” and the promotion of literature and human rights in an international and domestic setting. For our first event, we were keen to interrogate the limits of freedom of speech within the domestic sphere and our own parliamentary process. We found the circumstance of Baroness Tonge’s resignation particularly interesting because it highlighted the tensions between international diplomacy and internal party politics, as well as the freedom to express personal views in a public capacity.

During the talk, Baroness Tonge discussed her career to date and offered insights into the whip system and parliamentary processes, as well as various other contemporary issues and policy. The first questions posed to the Baroness concerned the ins and outs of the parliamentary whip system. While the term (which originates from fox-hunting) contains an overt disciplinary gesture, this did not necessarily come across in Tonge’s elucidation of its contemporary function. Indeed, despite recent experiences, she was generally positive about the ongoing use of this political mechanism. She made several references to her personal belief in individual liberalism and the freedom of speech, but she also conceded that sometimes maintaining a broad party line is important, not least for upholding electorate confidence. Drawing upon examples and anecdotes from her own career, Tonge also described the weekly letter received by the Whip setting out the business at hand, and the subsequent call on MPs to attend parliament in order to vote on these issues. In particular, she explained that importance of attendance is denoted by the number of lines underlining the request, whereby one implies a fairly important but flexible matter while three denotes a crucial vote for which attendance is almost mandatory (hence the famous phrase, “three line whip”).  

Other key areas of discussion during the session included: her experience of the contrasts and tensions between local and national politics; the ‘politics’ of party politics and her dissatisfaction with career-oriented politicians; debate regarding the recent health bill and her own disagreement with the changes; the extension of Heathrow and the response from her Richmond constituency; the question of prisoners’ right to vote; disagreement over reforming the House of Lords and Baroness Tonge’s understanding of the tension between her negative view of unelected chambers and her recent acceptance of life peerage; and the difficulties involved in establishing the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition so quickly, her concerns about how well this is working and how she feels the coalition has changed the Liberal Democrat party.

The talk raised interesting questions about the political whip system within a Coalition government:

        Is it possible to work conflicting policy and ideology into a single party line, and is this a useful, necessary mode of politics, or does it restrict political freedom and debate?

        How is freedom of speech and political opinion affected by the two-house system, and how might parliamentary processes need to change if the House of Lords were to be reformed?

        Is there a discrepancy between an academic approach to freedom of speech within British parliament, and its perception by those who work in this political space?

We would encourage and look forward to any comments or further questions about the whip system and freedom of speech in Westminster.

Edit: In a previous version of this article, the author stated that Jenny Tonge resigned as Lib Dem whip, when in fact she resigned from the Lib Dem party.

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2 thoughts on “Political Whips and the Freedom of Speech: A Review

  1. Actually, Baroness Tonge was never a Lib Dem Whip. That is not what “resigning the whip” means. To explain. Say you were a Labour MP. You have a falling out with the Labour leadership, and so resign from the Labour Party. You are still an MP, but you are no longer a member of Labour’s group of MPs. You are therefore said to have “resigned the Labour whip”. That is what happened in Baroness Tonge’s case in the House of Lords – she “resigned the Liberal Democrat Whip”. But she was never actually a whip herself.

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