Another View: Under the lash of the whips

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The Independent Online
Anyone watching television over the past couple of days would think from statements made by my colleague Jim Cousins MP that I am a shy and pathetic figure, and that I had to be protected from myself while I was in Iraq with him and Clive Furness of the Campaign against Repression and for Human Rights in Iraq.

Those who know me are well aware that the truth is otherwise. We had gone to Turkey and Iraq at short notice last week to monitor operations against the Kurds. It is not for me to criticise the actions of a colleague who was literally under fire in a war zone, but sometimes people act in strange ways in these circumstances.

When we found ourselves at risk from Saddam Hussein's bombardment of Erbil, and also caught in the conflict between the two main Kurdish political parties, Jim found it difficult to cope. After a phone call back to England, we noticed a change in his attitude. He became reclusive and announced that he wanted to go home.Back in Britain, instead of standing up to the Whips Office when they sacked us for missing parliamentary votes without permission, he turned turtle, in contrast to his previously defiant attitude.

The whips operate a "pairing" system which allows absent MPs from government and opposition to cancel out each other's votes without having to turn up in the Commons. This is particularly important for Labour's frontbench foreign affairs team, enabling us to respond rapidly to unpredictable world events.

Most of my colleagues believe that Labour's whips use tactics which are, to say the least, dubious. If you are in favour, you can have a pair. If you are out of favour, you can expect no help from them. Apparently, I am so far out of favour that the Chief Whip made it clear that I would have been refused a pair even if I had contacted him before I went away. Is it not strange that 37 Labour MPs were found pairs for the vote on 27 March? Were they all on important international business?Naturally, I was pleased to learn that in some cases the whips can act like lightening: a colleague of mine was granted a pair on the spot at 8.30pm on 28 March when there was a three-line whip.

The first and most important rule of the Parliamentary Labour Party is that Labour MPs should not attack each other in public. The people charged with upholding this rule are the whips. From my experience, the standards they operate are not the ones they set others. As I told Tony Blair, the Whips Office is Old Labour at its worst. New Labour urgently needs to rid itself of its neanderthal practices.

When people say to me: "Ann, you should have paired", they are right. I am guilty as charged. But so is the Whips Office. Until they can treat all MPs with fairness and equity, they will not command or deserve our respect. If we cannot be fair to each other in Parliament, how can we be fair to people outside it?

The writer is MP for Cynon Valley and until Monday was opposition spokeswoman for foreign affairs.

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