Some people don’t understand the hunt. The thrill of pursuit. Tracking where the hounds are going, whipping the stray ones back into the pack. I’m writing, of course, about council politics.

Recently, there have been stories about councillors in Sheffield not standing up for their constituents. This is nothing new. It’s known in the trade as the Crisis of Representation: when a councillor won’t speak out in public or vote against their party, even when they and their constituents want to. They’ve been whipped.

The term ‘party whipping’ comes from the ‘whipping in’ of hounds by the horseriding gentry on a fox hunt. Aside from Theresa May’s cabinet, the horseriding gentry doesn’t play much of a role in politics now. The practice of whipping, however, remains. The party leader bestrides their snorting mount and corrals wandering dogs into the pack. The threat of being excluded from influence, power and status within a close-knit party group is enough to challenge all but the hardiest of hounds. If any become too disobedient, they are humanely put down.

Labour and Lib Dem hounds are rarely allowed to wander far from the pack. Underneath that liberal clothing lurks jodhpurs and polo shirts. The UKIP pack doesn’t whip and runs in small feral groups, with hounds often going stray. Strays are known as ‘independents’, though these mongrels may join another pack if their scent fits. The Greens also shun the whip, scampering about chasing butterflies and falling leaves. As the packs of Labour and Lib Dems move around the Council chamber like well-oiled killing machines, it’s always nice to see the hounds of the UKIPs and Greens meandering over the tables and doing their business on the Lord Mayor’s seat.

As a keen observer of the hunt, it’s tempting to ask what the problem is. Whipping keeps a party disciplined and on-message. To see the issue clearly, let’s examine a completely hypothetical example that bears no relation to any current situation.

Let’s say Sheffield City Council enters into a 25-year contract with DeathCorp to control pests. DeathCorp wants to wipe out the pests quickly with killer robots, so it can relax for the rest of the contract, but the killer robots are a bit careless and occasionally vapourise people. Local residents go to their councillor, complaining about people being incinerated for ‘behaving in a foxy manner’ or ‘looking bunny’. The councillor says they will raise it at an internal party meeting, but in public just repeats the party line: ‘The city needs killer robots to enforce pest control.’ The good citizens are shocked. The councillor has been whipped. There is no public representation.

A Council vote is then called on whether to get rid of DeathCorp. Two-thirds of the ruling group back it, but one-third aren’t sure. Let’s say all other parties oppose the contract with DeathCorp. In an open discussion, the smaller parties could set out their case, persuade the one-third of the ruling group to vote with them, and push DeathCorp out. But with party whipping, the open discussion and free vote doesn’t happen. The one-third follows the party line and the Council votes in favour of killer robots.

Democracy is on shaky ground here. The citizens of Sheffield might suspect that they are regarded more as pests than people.

As much as the party hunt is an enjoyable spectacle in council politics, tradition needs to change. There are other ways to keep the pack together, such as talk and reflection as a party group. More power could be given to council committees, where party politics matters less and finding solutions matters more. The freedom to openly disagree is something that all political groups should work towards. Without that, we cannot be confident that democracy is being done. It’s time to drop the whip.

Council Axe