May 27, 2003
Please deactivate your conscience
Over the weekend I caught a glimpse of a weekly news-roundup on German television. The program is the Wochenspiegel, aired on the public ARD network, and they were running an item on opposition to Schröder's reform proposals. Opposition runs high on the left wing of his own SPD party, and the labor movement has been vocal in opposing the plans too. So they interviewed one of the SPD members of parliament who might vote against the plans. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of his guy, but one thing he said really struck me. Speaking of his threat to vote against the government, he said that in his 30 years of being a member of parliament for the SPD, he had used his conscience three times. He added something to the effect "so it's not like I do this very often."
And this is completely unremarkable. Not using his conscience is seen as a Right Thing To Do, because party discipline is much more important. Voting against the party line ("using your conscience") is very rare in most parliamentary democracies in Europe. The Party is most important. This is a result of the incentive structures in European politics, where parties are dominant. Proportional representation breaks the direct link between candidate and voter. More importantly, in order to advance your career in politics, you have to curry favor with the party, not the voter. Vote against the party and your future prospects take a nosedive, your career is in doubt. So absolute loyalty to the party line is essential.
This leads us to the absurd situation that a politician is interviewed on national TV and proudly proclaims that he's only used his conscience thrice in thirty years. And nobody thinks it's remarkable.
Posted by qsi at May 27, 2003 07:56 AM
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Perhaps you misunderstood? Party discipline is strictly enforced even in the seat-based Australian system, except in the rare case of a "conscience vote", which could have been what the German politician meant. These are usually held only on sensitive "moral" issues like abortion, sodomy laws, etc. where fundamentalist Christians on both sides of the parliament might otherwise revolt and leave the party.
The way I remember him saying was something along the lines of "in 3 Jahren habe ich mein Gewissen dreimal in Anpruch genommen." I think this specifically refers to voting against the party line, rather than free conscience-based votes. If it had been the latter, it would have applied to all members of parliament, but this guy was speaking specifically about his voting record in the context of rebelling against the SPD party line.
I agree that even in systems with a constituency based system party loyalties do matter. In Britain party discipline in enforced with various levels of strictness, with a "three-line whip" being the most severe. Voting against the party on a three-line whip will make your position very difficult indeed.