Voting and electoral participation has always been a controversial topic amongst Muslims in Britain with an increasing number of Muslims now adopting the position that voting is not harām, with some yet considering it an obligation. It is no surprise then that with general elections around the corner, there has been a recent flurry of emails, blogs, websites and even YouTube clips in circulation encouraging British Muslims to play their part and make sure they use their vote.
Leaving aside the issues of the permissibility of voting according to the Sharīʿah (something the writer is in no way qualified to comment upon), one cannot help but observe a certain level of naivety among some of those who believe that voting in parliamentary elections can make a difference to the situation of Muslims today. Those who promote voting can generally be divided into two camps: firstly, they are those who sincerely believe that voting and electoral participation is the primary, if not only, way forward for Muslims in Britain to substantially change their condition. Should we not embark on this journey, we are doomed to drown in the ocean of oppression we are currently struggling in. On the other hand, there are those who promote voting with their primary focus being to empower the Muslim community and assist it to emerge from the ghettoised Islamic ideal that its imagination fanaticises about incessantly, with no tangible action ever being taken to fulfil that ideal. This camp believes that participation can achieve a positive change for the situation of Muslims and the societies we live in, albeit a very slight one. The key objective for them is empowering the Muslim community.
Although both sides have differing primary objectives for promoting electoral participation that are laudable in the sense that both intend to bring about good for the community and society, both make the same error in failing to inform, educate, and enlighten their target audience about the drawbacks of such participation. The message coming out from both camps, directly or indirectly, is that by voting, we can select someone who will represent our interests in parliament.
But isn’t this what democracy is all about?
Maybe not. To fully appreciate this, one must have a working knowledge of the inner mechanisms that operate in parliament, such as the ‘whipping’ system – and yes, it is as graphic as it sounds. The Government Chief Whip is a political office entrusted with the task of administering the whipping system that ensures that members of the party attend and vote as the party leadership desires. The Government Chief Whip is assisted by the Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, and Assistant Whips. Other parties have their own respective whips.
Every week, the Chief Whip sends a circular (“the whip”) to all the MPs in their party informing them of the schedule for the days ahead, and includes the sentence, “Your attendance is absolutely essential” next to each debate in which there will be a vote. This sentence is underlined one, two, or three times depending on the consequences that will be suffered if they do not turn up. Three-line whips’ are imposed on important occasions, such as second readings of significant Bills and motions of no confidence. Failure by MPs to attend a vote with a three-line whip is usually seen as a rebellion against the party and may eventually result in disciplinary action, such as suspension from the parliamentary party. In essence, the ‘three-line whip’ means that not only must the MP attend the vote, but he must vote with the party and against his own beliefs (if he opposes the party line) and maybe even those of his constituents. If he does not, he will effectively be thrown out of the party. This means that very rarely does an MP disobey a three-line whip, because to do so would be to sabotage your career beyond repair.
Furthermore, the actual direction of the MPs vote is communicated in the chamber by hand signals during the division when the time to vote comes. Even though it determines the outcome of the votes crucially far more than the debate, neither these instructions, which are visible to everyone in the chamber, nor the “whip” letter at the start of the week are recorded in Hansard as they are considered an internal matter of the political party.
MPs are bullied to vote in line with the wishes of their party leadership. They often vote for a motion with only the very slightest idea of what it entails. This is evidenced by those MPs who do not attend a debate (usually over 80% of the total) but are at another meeting within the Division Bell area, and who suddenly have to rush to vote. They will often admit that they have little idea about the substance of the motion on which they are voting. Almost all of what is approved by Parliament is now just a rubber stamp of what has been decided by a Government department.
But surely my MP will represent me and not buckle under the crack of the whip?
Although MPs are sometimes allowed a ‘free vote’, which means they can vote according to their own opinion, this is the exception rather than the rule. Jeremy Paxman once described this relationship,
‘For the average backbencher, the whip is the street-corner thug they need to get past on their way home from school. Treat him with respect, and life will be fine. If you cross him, watch out’.
The consequences for defying the party whip can be career ending, depending on the circumstances, the importance of the outcome, and how close it will potentially be. Although allowances can be made for MPs on certain occasions, including where issues are a matter of conscience, the general rule is that whips will resort to a mixture of promises, threats, blackmail, and extortion to force an unpopular vote. So through this mixture of threats to expose your MP’s personal and financial affairs or promises of promotion, offers of places on select committees, and trips abroad, the whips exercise far more control over your MP’s vote than you do, the individual who voted him/her into office. For example, in November 2008, it emerged that the then-chief whip, Nick Brown, proposed that any Labour MP who had voted against the government in the past year would not be recommended to sit on all-party parliamentary select committees.
Another clear example which is of direct effect to all Muslims in Britain is the manner in which amendments to the Extradition Act 2003, under which British citizens can be extradited to countries such as the US without the need to show a prima facie case, were voted on in 2006. There have been a number of British Muslims facing extradition to the US under this Treaty including Babar Ahmad. On 24 October 2006, the House of Commons voted on amendments to the Police and Justice Bill which would have allowed a court – in a case where the alleged crime partially took place in the UK – to determine whether trial in the state requesting extradition would be in the interests of justice. On 19 October 2006, Parliamentarians received a letter from a coalition of civil liberties organisations, lawyers and corporate industry lobby groups requesting their support for the amendments. Opponents of the Treaty also lobbied their elected MPs to vote for the amendments. On the day of the vote, a drop-in briefing for MPs on the issue was held in a committee room in the House of Commons. One of the lawyers present reported how the Government Chief Whip at the time, Jacqui Smith, sat outside the committee room monitoring and recording which MPs attended the meeting as a means of intimidating them into not attending.
The impact of such a system is strongest on younger MPs who tend to see the select committee system as a route to ministerial office rather than a chance to carve out a career as an independent-minded expert. Veteran MPs such as Clare Short and Robin Cook, who have stood by their principles in opposing the Iraq war, are few and far between, and have suffered for their independent minds, effectively causing their departure from the party.
Although it is true that there is an increasing number of Socialist Labour MPs who consistently rebel against the party (such as Jeremey Corbyn and John Mcdonnell), it is still a tiny minority.
In light of the above, it is worth noting the origin of the word ‘whip’ within Parliament. According to the Houses of Parliament website, the word has its roots in the 18th century hunting terminology ‘whipper-in’. It refers to the huntsman’s assistant who drives straying hounds back to the main pack using a whip. How appropriate; the MP you campaign, canvass, and vote for is at his most powerful a mere stray hound who can be whipped back to the main pack by his/her master.
I am not against voting per se, but Muslims must not be so naive as to believe that it is the answer to our problems. Voting in local elections is completely unlike Parliamentary elections. In the former, we can achieve some sort of direct benefit to the societies we live in. In the latter, we are dependent on how much fortitude our MPs exhibit in the face of the whip. Of course, there must be (and probably are) limited ways to overcome this hurdle but these must be discussed and debated. By failing to even mention the hurdle, we allow our community to blindly run straight into it and cause enough injury to force an early retirement.
Furthermore, block (Muslim) voting can be both a source of empowerment and very effective as was the case in the 2005 election when the Muslims of Bethnal Green & Bow displaced pro-war Labour MP Oona King with George Galloway. In such circumstances, Muslims should use their block vote to chastise MPs for their anti-Muslim policies. It is criminal that the Muslims in Blackburn had not used their vote to oust Jack Straw for his pro-war policies, for example. Will the Muslims of places like Blackburn use their block vote to punish such MPs? Similarly, the block Muslim vote should be utilised to reward MPs who have supported causes of justice and opposed oppression. However, once again, those who promote ‘the Muslim vote’ fail to offer strategic advice as to which MPs Muslims should vote for, and instead, abandon them to make their own democratic choices. This effectively dilutes, if not destroys, the very essence of ‘the Muslim vote’.
At the same time we must be realistic. The Muslim vote is not likely to prevent the Far Right from winning seats in Parliament. By its very nature, the Muslim vote can only be effective in constituencies where there is a Muslim majority. It is highly unlikely that the BNP will even try and field candidates in such constituencies and are more likely to invest resources running their candidates in winnable seats such as Barking, where ‘the Muslim vote’ is virtually non-existent.
In conclusion, when it comes to parliamentary elections, and in certain constituencies, voting has its benefits whereby MPs known for their anti-Muslim views can be reproved by a block Muslim vote. However, in all but a minority of cases, Muslims should not believe that the MP they actually vote for will represent them in lieu of their party when it comes to issues which really matter. These MPs have taken a pledge of allegiance to the political party they represent and it most certainly trumps the wishes of their constituents.
By failing to inform and educate the masses about the dangers within the system, both of the camps that promote voting fail to do justice to the objectives they seek to attain. Their actions are similar to a surgeon encouraging a patient to undergo a certain operation without advising him as to inherent dangers involved, or, about any adverse effects that could occur as a result. It is time that we stop playing reactionary politics where we are seen as swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, but let us have an open and mature discussion about participation, warts and all. Or is there room for some censorship in a democracy?