Whip’s notebook

By Jon Ashworth

Before I became an MP I was for many years a bag carrier, which meant a lot of marching at the side of Gordon, Harriet or Ed through Westminster corridors while trying to look serious, doing my best not to drop the wad of briefing papers and most of all desperately hoping I wouldn’t get us lost.

As a diligent member of the leader’s political office, I would usually take advantage of the opportunity to get their view on some upcoming vote at the NEC or some whipping issue causing anguish. Often a backbench MP or fellow (shadow) minster would need a word with Gordon, Harriet or Ed and so Gordon, Harriet or Ed would assure me they would speak to them “in the vote”.

I never really knew what this meant until I became an MP myself.

Now of course at one rudimentary level I knew it meant they would speak to them as they go through the voting lobbies. But I never really appreciated the whole voting lobby experience. It’s where us MPs all congregate, gossip, catch-up and have that quick word with a colleague we’ve been looking out for. We’re all busy people so it’s often where my good friends and parliamentary neighbours Keith Vaz, Liz Kendall and I get together for a quick conflab about any pressing Leicester issue.

Being a whip brings another dimension to the experience through “telling” which means I and a government whip stand at the exit and count colleagues one by one as they walk through (we got the count wrong last week but that’s another story). The final MP to walk through the division lobby, usually our pairing whip Mark Tami, says “all out” to indicate he’s the final MP and then the two tellers can go off and tell the clerks how many voted.

Meanwhile over in the Tory lobby the deputy chief whip is always the last to walk through shouting “all out” in a rather theatrical way as if he’s Windsor Davies in It Aint Half Hot Mum. It seems rather unnecessary to me but the Tory chaps seem to like that kind of thing.

There was much amusement the other week as a poor hapless Lib Dem local government minister got caught up in our lobby in a vote on the local government finance bill. As Chris Bryant hilariously recounts the Lib Dem in question apparently wanted to fill up a carafe with water in the toilets (both voting lobbies have toilets) and had accidentally walked into the lobby we were voting in. Not sure what to do it seems he took refuge hiding in said toilets of our lobby until the vote was over.

Lib Dem MPs in our lobby is something of a rarity though. Of course there are one or two serial rebels such as the ever dapper Portsmouth MP Mike Hancock and a wider number seem to abstain, but overall, there doesn’t appear to be much Lib Dem appetite for consistently voting against the Tories in the Commons.

And yet we keep reading that this is the year the Lib Dems will adopt their differentiation strategy. Over the next few months we’ll read more about what their supposed policy wins are in government. Simon Hughes and Tim Farron will tour the TV studios reassuring the Lib Dem party faithful that it’s all hunky dory proclaiming that they are in fact defeating those nasty Tories and getting their way on all kinds of things in government.

But really? Smart Labour bruiser Michael Dugher took the Lib Dem record to task recently in Tribune reminding us that wasn’t it the signature policy of the Lib Dems to abolish tuition fees? Didn’t they run their campaign warning of the VAT bombshell? Didn’t Vince Cable continually tell us of the dangers of too rapid fiscal contraction?

Isn’t this the party that likes to think of itself as fighting for fairness and yet allows hugely regressive measures such as tax credit cuts to go ahead and in the next few weeks will march into the lobbies with the Tories to vote through a health bill which will rip apart the fabric of our NHS? No wonder some Tories are said to be “baffled” at the policy positioning of the Lib Dems in government.

But on the bright side for the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg got his AV referendum and is said to be getting his cherished bill on reform of the House of Lords. But the drumbeat sounds ominous. The well connected James Forsyth has already revealed that Tories are dismissing the Deputy Prime Minister’s latest project as “part of Nick Clegg’s campaign for a better Belgium. It is totally irrelevant to everyone but him and his party”. And I won’t be the only Labour MP to have heard crossbench peers whisper in the corridors of Westminster that they won’t let Clegg get his way.

Yet if the Deputy Prime Minister fails to get Lords reform after failing to get AV, surely the time will come when all those Lib Dem MPs will begin to wonder why on earth Clegg bet the house on this coalition, and maybe then they will start walking through our lobby rather than hiding in the toilets.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip

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7 Responses to “Whip’s notebook”

  1. swatantra says:

    With great respect Jon, ‘God not another Spad’. Where are the ordinary blokes from the factory floor who have done the night shift, or the salesgirl whose worked in household goods for 10 years? If we could get more of them into Parliament we’ed be laughing. But I can see the value in a career politician serving an apprenticeship by being a bagcarrier and general dogsbody. You have to start somewhere.
    Rosie Winterton has managed to keep well out of the limelight. Thats why Nick Brown would have been a better choice even though he was Gordons man..

  2. Ralph Baldwin says:

    You can actually on a public site admit to being a “bag carrier”? Have you no self respect?

  3. pg says:

    Sorry ralph but i find a bit of modesty more appealing than the self regarding pomposity mps seem to think we want in our elected representatives. Although i’d prefer it if they carried the can a bit more often, as well as the bags.

  4. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Actually it had nothing to do with either modesty or pomposity. There is no dignity in “carrying a bag” for any man or woman in the 21st Century. I was looking for practical relevant experience development in an area of policy. I agree on the can though. Take care 😉

  5. Dear Cllr Baldwin, I didn’t literally carry the bag, its a figure of speech. Regards Jon Ashworth

  6. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Yes, but sadly you may as well have 😉 and it does not address my central point does it?

  7. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:


    Actually in all fairness at least the system you describe in your role as whip seems civilised which is alien to what I was accustomed to before I left Labour for democracy and (hopefully) integrity.

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