MPs defeated the motion to ban abortion on the basis of gender alone in Parliament. This news story, while ultimately unsuccessful, is important in a number of ways. Firstly the suggested legislation was put forward under the Ten Minute Rule of Parliament. This is quite an unusual way for legislation to begin if it is actually to get anywhere through the legislative process.Equally, it helps give a detailed example of the growth (and growing) power of backbench MPs. With many commentators suggesting another hung Parliament is looming large on the horizon, this growth in backbench power (in defiance of their parties and the party whip) is unlikely to disappear following the coming election.
A number of years ago, a particularly challenging 40 mark question on the power of backbencher MPs was included in the Unit 2 exam paper. This topic has become particularly important following reforms of Parliament (suggested by the Wright committee) which allowed backbench MPs to pick select committee chairs (instead of party whips) and to set up the Backbench Business Committee (BBC). The BBC has has some notable success too – defeating the government in 2011 on prisoners votes (http://revolts.co.uk/?p=628 – No. 2) and pushing debates from those e-petitions with over 100,000 signatures such as the badger cull and Hillsborough. In order to carry out this work, the BBC is allocated 35 days a year, of which 27 must be in the Chamber.
This has been brought acutely into focus given the nature of the Coalition government – with a small majority, only a small rebellion has the power to scupper the government. It should be noted that the Coalition have faced few defeats and therefore could be considered a strong and stable government. That said, the Coalition, particularly 2010-2012, faced the greatest number of rebellions since WWII. This would suggest then that the Coalition has allowed for the growth of backbench power. Indeed the current most rebellious member of Parliament – Rt Hon Philip Davies MP – has voted against his own party in nearly 20% of the votes that he has voted in. (http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/mp.php?id=uk.org.publicwhip/member/40531#divisions)
Source: Revolts (http://revolts.co.uk/?p=711)
Obviously, ultimately, MPs wishing to advance their careers cannot be rebellious: the career path of our own Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP would bear this out – from election as MP, to Private Parliamentary Secretary, to Minister to Secretary in a little over 4 years. Equally, the lack of actual defeats suggest that the government do still dominate. However, this article should at least give some evidence for the counter argument with which so many students struggled.
It is worth noting too, that many of the same reasons that explain the growth in backbench power, also help explain the more-than-100 defeats that the House of Lords has handed down to the Coalition – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords/lords-defeats). Of course, the 1999 reforms and increase in expertise on the House also has a large role here.
This article is worth a look for a little more information – http://www.totalpolitics.com/print/342567/is-this-the-best-ever-time-to-be-a-backbencher.thtml
Backbench Business Committee – http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/backbench-business-committee/