Labour leader’s ‘unprecedented’ written warning to MPs who voted against Tory bill shows he wanted to use strongest whip to abstain on bill to legal crime by ‘covert intelligence sources’. That he used single-line whip but treated it as three is spineless
Last week, Keir Starmer ‘whipped’ Labour MPs to abstain on a Tory bill to legalise any and all crimes committed by ‘covert human intelligence sources’, including civilians. That a Labour leader would order MPs to abstain on a bill designed to allow such sources to commit any crime – up to and including rape, torture and murder – ought to be remarkable, but currently isn’t. Starmer only used the weakest possible ‘whip’, a single line – normally considered as ‘advisory’ and not subject to discipline.
The order was the latest in a string of abstention whips by Starmer as he tries frantically to avoid being seen opposing the Tories.
But Starmer has not treated this one-line whip – nor the one before it on a similar bill to legalise torture overseas by British personnel – in the way such an advisory whip is traditionally treated.
Novara Media explained in their analysis of his response:
Novara understands that all of the MPs who defied the whip on the overseas operations bill and the covert human intelligence sources bill (CHIS), also known as the spycops bill – both of which the party whipped to abstain on – immediately received letters from opposition chief whip Nick Brown.
The letters break significantly with party protocol. A one-line whip is the least strict instruction on how to vote, often considered advisory or non-binding, compared to tougher two or three-line whips. According to Labour’s standing orders, “minor breaches” by MPs should first be met with a verbal warning from the whips’ office. If a member continues to vote against the party, this should be escalated to a verbal warning from the chief whip. Only after these two steps have been taken would MPs usually receive a written reprimand. “They’ve gone straight for the harshest steps,” said one letter recipient. “It’s really heavy-handed.”
Similarly, when front-bench MPs ignored Starmer’s one-line order to abstain on the overseas torture bill, he sacked Nadia Whittome and required two others to resign.
On the UK criminal impunity bill, eight MPs resigned from the front bench in order to vote against it, when traditionally they should not need to – and all 34 MPs who voted against it, including back-benchers, received threatening warning letters.
In other words, Starmer used a single-line whip – but reacted as if a 3-line whip, the strictest, had been broken.
Lacking the courage to front up and actually announce that he was using a 3-line whip to order MPs to abstain on a bill that fractures the human and civil rights of UK citizens – but then treating MPs who broke his limp order as if they had broken a 3-line whip anyway.
Could anything better sum up Keir Starmer’s already-dire tenure as the party’s notional leader?
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