Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Jargon of British politics

Although British politicians and journalists talk about many of the same things American politicians and journalists do, the language the Brits use is often unfamiliar to Americans. Can you make sense of these?

Labour backs cross-party amendment to block no-deal Brexit
Let's start with the article's title. What's a "cross-party amendment"?

In the US, you would probably hear that kind of thing referred to as "bipartisan." (But that language might be misleading if you have more than two active parties in the legislature as the British do.)

"Labour is to support a backbench amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper that could severely restrict the government’s taxation powers unless a no-deal Brexit is taken off the table.

"The Labour frontbench is likely to whip its MPs to back the cross-party amendment, significantly increasing its chances of success in the Commons. Around a dozen Tory MPs have also signalled their intention to back the amendment…"

Ms Cooper's amendment has been "tabled." In American Robert's Rules of Orders, if you table something, it is set aside "on the table," and won't be considered unless the legislature votes to take it up (off the table). In the UK, a tabled amendment is one that has been introduced needs to be voted up or down.

And, what's the Labour "frontbench?" It's the party leaders who sit on the front bench in the House of Commons. The government "frontbench" sits on the opposite side alongside the Prime Minister (or her surrogate). The people occupying those front bench seats are often referred to as "front benchers". And the rest of the party members sit on the back benches and are referred to as "back benchers." The front benchers are the powerful people in Commons.

And what happens if Labour's frontbench whips its MPs to back the cross-party amendment?

Be assured there will be no physical violence. After all Commons is designed to discourage violence. The white lines between the government and opposition benches, which MPs are not supposed to cross, are far apart enough to discourage sword fighting.

Every day, the leadership of the parties distributes an agenda for
An agenda with two three-line whips
events in Commons. The agenda includes expected votes and instructions on how a good party member will vote.

Some votes are "free votes" meaning that party members can vote as they wish (or as they think their constituency wishes). Some votes on the agenda will be underlined by a single line. That's a single line whip. The party has taken a position, but it's not a really big deal if a member wishes to vote against the party.

A two-line whip is an instruction to attend Commons for the vote and to follow party policy unless given permission to abstain or vote contrary to the party's position.

If the vote on the agenda is underlined three times, it's a "three-line whip" and a big deal. An MP is expected to attend and to vote to support party policy. A violation of three-party whip is likely to lead to serious consequences. (Remember that nearly a third of the MPs hold party or legislative jobs handed out by party leaders.)

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Just The Facts! 2nd edition is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.

Just The Facts! is available. Order HERE.

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