As the expenses crisis hit the political system in Britain, the new speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow said his main objective was to strengthen the role of the backbench politician. Less than a year later, the British public voted to retain the first past the post voting system with an overwhelming majority. About two years into the new parliament, parliamentarians and observers agree that Speaker Bercow, though hardly liked by his colleagues, has delivered. Backbenchers have been allowed to call debates at short notice and the speaking time granted to them, to the chagrin of the party whips, has increased significantly.
Contrast this with the recent developments in the German parliament where a spat between the speaker of the lower house (Bundestagspresident) Lammert and the chief whips of the main parties threaten to lead to new rules for parliamentary debates, potentially removing the right of the speaker to call backbenchers for debate at his own discretion and curtailing their speaking time to 3 minutes.
The German and British parliaments differ in many things but probably nowhere more so than in the power of the party whips. While disenchantment with the main political parties is rife amongst the publics in both countries, the responses of the political classes has been markedly different. In Britain, it has led to a silent revolution in the distribution of power between backbenchers and parties, with the chief whips losing much of their say over who speaks in parliament at which debate. Coupled with the retention of the first past the post voting system, this seems to have strengthened the role of individual parliamentarians with backbench revolts against government backed legislation at an all time high.
The story in Germany could be more different. Although Germany does elect a substantial number of parliamentarians through the first past the post system, overall it operates a mixed electoral system which puts the political parties firmly in charge of candidate selection. Smaller parties like the Greens and the Left party which traditionally have few parliamentarians elected with outright majorities in their constituencies, have only tenuous links with their voters, something that solidifies the power of the party whips.
The spat between Lammert and the party whips reveals this trend of strengthening political parties over parliamentarians voting with their consciousness. In a recent debate, Lammert allowed some parliamentarians to articulate their misgivings about legislation brought by the government. The chief whips of the main parties, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, took that as an assault on their god-given right to determine who speaks in which debate. Consequently they now propose new rules which curtailed the discretion of the speaker to call individual members of the parties in any debate. In effect, through the new rules, party whips put themselves in charge of deciding who can speak in parliament and who cannot.
The response of the party whips is telling in the wake of some devastating defeats in recent state wide elections in Germany. The Pirate Party, a motley crew of individuals who either reject parliamentary politics altogether or party politics in particular, has enjoyed some phenomenal success in Germany over the last year, seriously threatening the dominance of established political parties. You would think that the message of voters would have been clear: conventional parties are losing their connection with the concerns of ordinary voters. Yet the reaction is one of tightening the grip of political parties on their members rather than permitting more diversity of opinion to be reflected in parliamentary debate.
Although this was rarely discussed when Britain voted in the referendum last year, it seems that the first past the post system is still the better system to guard against the overbearing power of political parties. Or perhaps, thank God for Speaker John Bercow.
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