It is popular here to decry the whips and to claim that no MP should ever vote according to the whips’ wishes. Let me explain why I do not agree.
People in the UK usually vote for candidates representing the major parties in General Elections. I am not looking for a further debate on which parties are now the main parties! Most independent candidates receive very few votes, and only rarely in a special circumstance is an independent elected to Parliament.
People understand that Independent MPs may not be able to achieve much. If they wish to propose something, no other MP may be willing to second it, let alone 325 find another MPs to support it to get it through. Many people wish to influence which party governs, and understand that there needs to be some party discipline to conduct a government. An independent candidiate is also unable to say how they will vote on most of the issues coming up before the Parliament, as they will not be making the proposals and will have to respond to what the main parties decide to table as government or Opposition motions. The main Opposition party has 20 days of time in Parliament they can fill each year. The government controls the rest of the time. An independent has no such luxury.
More importantly, to be able to run a convincing government, Ministers need to be able to take decisions with reasonable certainty that the majority party will support them. Good Ministers consult widely with their MP colleagues before committing themselves, to avoid unpleasant surprises. The whips are two way communicators. Their role is not merely to tell MPs what the government would like them to do, but also to tell government Ministers what backbench MPs are prepared to do. A wise Minister does not rely on the whip to get through anything he wishes to do, but does expect the whips to help and to exert some influence, especially when the Minister has to do something which is right but not necessarily popular.
Any good party based MP will mainly vote for his party’s whip. He or she will do so because quite often the votes will be supporting things that formed their common platform at the election, or reflect their common principles and wishes as a party group. Sometimes an MP will do so on the law of averages. They may not have chosen the policy themselves, but accept all parties are coalitions where there has to be some give and take. An MP may vote for policy A which he is not keen on, to help secure a majority within the party for Policy B which he does like.
A good MP will also rebel against the whip where he has good reason to do so. Good reason can include a strong constituency interest that is damaged by the g0vernment or Opposition Policy. It can also include a wish to stick to Manifesto or election pledges if the MP thinks the leadership has wrongly departed from them, or to oppose matters which have come up since the election where the MP thinks the leadership has not been true to the principles of the party. An MP should certainly vote against the party whip where he or she has promised to do so by differentiating his personal manifesto on an important matter at the time of the election. I, for example, promised my electors to vote for an EU referendum in this Parliament, so I have done so against a 3 line whip.
This Parliament has been a much more rebellious one than usual. The main reason is many Conservatives, elected on a Conservative Manifesto, have often not felt willing or able to vote for Coalition policies that are different from the Conservative policies candidates campaigned for and MPs believe in.There has also been an understanding on matters like the budget that Ministers have to be allowed some leeway, and you do have to vote through a budget for good order, even if it is not always the one you would have liked. A Parliament full of independents who all wanted to increase spending on their pet projects and never wanted to vote through a tax increase would not permit good government. It might be a way to speed us to national bankruptcy.