1. an official in a political party whose job is to make certain that other members go where they are needed and that they vote in the correct way
2. an official order to members of a political party to go to a particular debate and vote
Origin and usage
The use of the noun whip to refer to a political official dates from the middle of the 19th century. It is an alteration of the term ‘whipper in’, a term borrowed from hunting. A whipper in is an assistant to a huntsman who stops the hounds from straying by driving them back into the body of the pack with a whip. The hunting term dates from the first part of the 18th century and was first used with its political meaning in the late 18th century. The noun whip itself dates from the 14th century while the verb is even older, being first recorded in the early 13th century.
Whip was first used with its political meaning by the novelist W. M. Thackeray in 1850 in his political novel ‘Pendennis’:
Captain Raff, the honourable member for Epsom, … retired after the last Goodwood races, having accepted, as Mr. Hotspur, the whip of the party, said, a mission to the Levant.
Pausing to note the witty borrowing of the name of one of Shakespeare’s most dashing characters for the fictional whip, and the sly implication that the honourable member was more interested in horse racing than in fulfilling his political duties, we can note that the term is not particularly complimentary to politicians, implying that they need to be treated like disobedient and unruly dogs. Those who have seen or read ‘House of Cards’, particularly in its original UK version, will have observed that whips are sometimes credited with almost satanic powers of manipulation and intimidation. ‘House of Cards’ was written by Michael Dobbs, who knew the workings of parliament and the conservative party intimately, although he was never an MP or a whip himself. While these fictional accounts may exaggerate the powers of the whips, who after all simply maintain party discipline at the bidding of the leadership, it is certainly true that the job cannot be done by anyone who lacks a ruthless streak.
“Being whip is working with members, educating them, and trying to move legislation forward.”
(Kevin McCarthy, Republican politician)
“You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”
(Francis Urquhart, House of Cards)
backbencher, front bench, minister, spad