In hard times, firms tend to take a hard-nosed approach to business and that
can mean sidelining HR. Jane Lewis says HR could learn a few new tricks from
the Government whips to fight the bully-boy tactics
Parliamentary whips are such a shadowy and secretive breed that even
Margaret Thatcher once had to ask her friend Lord Parkinson: "Cecil, what
exactly do the whips do?" Few though, can be in any doubt as to their
standing as some of the toughest exponents of people management in the free
world. Frequently described as the henchmen of government, in their last major
public outing they helped prevent a full-scale backbench rebellion over war
While you may disagree with some of their methods, you cannot fault their
overall effectiveness. This is particularly the case now, when the general tone
of management thinking seems headed in a decidedly more whippish direction.
"Terror in the workplace is making a comeback," said The Economist
recently. And certainly, when times get tough, the balance of power tends to
swing dramatically towards the hardliners, as Linda Holbeche, research director
at HR think-tank Roffey Park, confirms. She says HR professionals are reporting
that "senior management’s tolerance of strategic contribution from HR has
become much more limited". The only thing boards want to talk about these
days is ‘trimming heads’ and ‘an end to the war for talent’. The overall mood
is: ‘we don’t need to be nice to anyone anymore’.
Holbeche argues that HR must defend its corner and fight back against being
recast in the role of corporate policeman. But some kind of tough role is
inherent in any job that seeks to manage people and performance in a declining
Shaun Tyson, professor of HRM at Cranfield School of Management agrees.
"Performance management has become much more hard-nosed," he says.
"Appraisal no longer means a nice cosy chat about how things are
If emotional intelligence was the mantra of the 1990s, it’s all about toughness
now. Even the most positive management gurus, like Good to Great author Jim
Collins, have described the benefits of keeping workers "productively
The ability to induce neurosis in terrified MPs is a traditional whip
speciality – as is their skill in getting a disparate bunch of people to agree
"Like many business leaders, whips spend their time ensuring everyone
is moving in the same direction," says Steve Harvey, director of people,
profit and culture, at Microsoft. He says that at Microsoft, "where we
have equally as many strong views [as in Parliament]", the ability to
marshal troops efficiently is just as critical. "There are times when you
have to make a call or a hard decision, and then force the organisation to
comply," he says.
But any company signing up to some of the whips’ more infamous persuasion
tactics would swiftly find itself in front of a tribunal or worse. Tales of
bullying – physical and mental – are two-a-penny, emotional blackmail is
commonplace, and bribery takes every shape and form.
Whips in all three major parties operate on the basis that knowledge is
power, and this goes much further than recording their members’ voting records.
The common boast is that they know more about individual MPs than either their
spouses or their bank managers. The Tories, in particular, are renowned for
keeping meticulous records of MPs’ private lives in a Black Book locked in the
chief whip’s safe. "It’s partly a confidence trick," says one
commentator, "their powers depend on not being specific about how much
they really know". The arch-practitioner of this approach, it is widely
agreed, was Tristan Garel-Jones – dubbed "the Prince of Darkness" for
his service during the Thatcher years.
The whips’ second weapon is patronage. This can take seemingly quite trivial
forms – fall foul of the whips [who control office allocation] and "you
may find yourself hot-desking in the corridor for the rest of the
parliament," says Gary Gibbon, political correspondent at Channel 4.
Other useful forms of encouragement include promises of trips abroad, seats
on committees, winks about future ministerial jobs and future honours. Even the
offer of a cup of tea with the PM or foreign secretary, can do the trick, says
former Tory whip and Independent political columnist Michael Brown – many
independent-minded backbenchers have been swayed for less. During the last
Major government, with the Government’s majority on a knife-edge and the Tory
party disastrously split over Europe, MPs with difficult personal financial
circumstances were bailed out by the whips to keep them loyal and prevent
by-elections (MPs declared bankrupt must resign).
But "the biggest weapon deployed by the whips is, in my experience, the
same one deployed by most companies," adds Gibbon. "Your advancement,
your very job, depends on loyalty to the creed." The small number of MPs
who remain unamenable to bribery or threats (a "whip’s definition of a
nightmare", according to Lord Parkinson) are usually placed on "a
shit list". There is only one crime greater than rebellion, says Gary
Gibbon, "and that is leaving your whip in ignorance of your rebellion and
making them look like a fool in front of their own boss. Maybe that has echoes
in the world beyond SW1". The ultimate sanction – used rarely – is to be
plunged into political no-man’s land by having the party whip withdrawn. This
rarely goes down well with an MP’s local constituency.
So who are the whips and how are they selected?
Although both major parties have different systems (Labour whips are
appointed by the leadership; Tory whips remain self-selecting), both have
initiated major changes in their whips’ offices in recent years.
Traditionally, the Labour whips were ex-union men, skilled at pushing large
numbers of people in the right direction and famous for their bluff tactics and
indelicate language. One celebrated 1970s chief whip, Michael Cocks, once told
an MP that if he didn’t get back from holiday in time to vote "you’ll be
The Tory office, meanwhile, was invariably populated – in the words of Alan
Clark – by "field sport enthusiasts whose last and only fulfilment had
been bullying lower boys at Eton".
Now, however, both parties routinely use their whips’ offices as a nursery
or proving ground for potential junior ministers. This helps explain why the
ranks of former whips include such apparently unobvious candidates as Estelle
Morris, John Major (described as "one of the most talented whips of his
generation"), Stephen Dorrell and Margaret Beckett.
Critics argue that this system has ensured that "instead of getting
those with a modest ambition to bully, you get bullies with big
ambitions". But there is no doubt that whipping strategies have changed
considerably as a result.
"I would say the occasions where the whips have used sensitive human
resources techniques are rare," says Gary Gibbon. "I’m not aware of
any training they might receive."
But in the Labour Party, at least, there is evidence of a new approach to
party management designed to show that MPs are not just "lobby
fodder". In the run-up to the last election, former chief whip, Ann
Taylor, even pioneered a kind of outplacement service offering careers advice
to MPs thought in danger of losing their seats. There are also clear signs that
persuasion tactics have become far more subtle in recent years (see box above
Party organisation, meanwhile, remains impressive: whips are routinely
divided into cells, each covering a different region. "They talk to their
own MPs and then report back to the chief whip [in Labour’s case, Hilary
Armstrong] about who would be the best MP or minister to approach them as a
‘friend’," says Gibbon. But party control remains so tight that no whip –
except Armstrong – knows the overall picture. "It’s almost like the
But perhaps the really major shift in the role of whips in both parties has
been their emergence as talent spotters. On any particular day, there is always
a whip lurking around noting every speech made in the chamber and in committees.
At weekly meetings, they compare notes on potential high-fliers and ministers
who are under-performing.
One of the whips’ least known, but primary, functions is to advise on
Cabinet composition. Indeed, it might be argued that whips enjoy the kind of
influence over senior post selection that many HR departments can only dream
Another lesson that HR might profitably learn from the whips is how to go
about getting new ideas accepted at a senior level. The secret of getting what
you want lies in the preparation. "You need to fix things in
advance," says one. "You need to have networked, to have people on
side, taken them to lunch."
Thus, while it is all too easy for modern HR professionals to scorn and
decry some of the more archaic practices of parliamentary whips, there is
clearly a good deal that can be gleaned from the way they operate – and not
just in terms of strong-arm practices.
Parliamentarian managers could certainly profit from some of the lessons of
business management in terms of "playing to the strengths" of their
people, says Microsoft’s Harvey. "When you think how often a minister
changes roles, I wonder how many are ‘getting to do what they do best every
day’," he says.
But perhaps the most important lesson that HR can glean from the whips in
terms of people management is their espousal of an organisational model
"that works for them". In such a democracy, he says, "it would
be feasible to debate forever and never get to the decision".
Whips, like HR professionals, are two-way messengers: they are the eyes and
ears of the Government in the House, but they are also act as a vital conduit
of overall strategy to the footsoldiers, says Linda Holbeche. HR managers
looking "to align themselves more closely with company strategy",
while working out new ways to achieve ‘buy-in’ from staff, could do a lot worse
than study their example.
A brief too far
One of the more telling episodes in
recent years concerned the former Labour MP, Paul Marsden, who ran into trouble
with Labour whips in 2001 for opposing the invasion of Afghanistan. Echoing
last month’s debate on the war with Iraq, he opposed the move on legal grounds
(there was no UN mandate) and had no objection to intervention per se. But
after addressing an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, he found himself
dragged into the office of chief whip, Hilary Armstrong.
According to Marsden’s account of the conversation, Armstrong’s
management of the situation was decidedly lacking. First, she played the
loyalty card; when that failed she "lost her rag" and branded him a
Nazi appeaser. "It was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938,"
she said, finishing with a timely impersonation of George Bush: "Those who
aren’t with us, are against us."
The tactic backfired spectacularly: Marsden went straight to
the press, remarking that Armstrong "clearly has no man management or
people skills at all". Anybody who knows the Labour Party workings, he
added later, "knows that it is now literally Stalinist – the leadership
make a decision and then ask for rubber stamping".
The result: a concerted campaign of intimidation. Armstrong
alleges he was physically roughed up, sworn at and briefed against as
"mad, an embittered loser and a left-wing lunatic". Soon after, he
defected to the Lib Dems.