Greg Collins discusses how temporary measures put in place for MP's in Westminster, during the Covid-19 crisis, could catalyse permanent reform.
The Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is not known for being much of a moderniser in Westminster, but even for him, the decision to end the hybrid Parliament at this stage is a curiously backwards one. The move for MPs to return to a kind of business as normal has been justified on the grounds that as society starts to slowly transition out of lockdown, so too must Parliament. But how can such a move be seen as being in any way logical with the virus still a pertinent threat and following the chaotic scenes of voting queues stretching all the way back to Portcullis House. The previous hybrid system had successfully implemented virtual voting and members able to contribute to debates via video link, something that arguably gave the archaic traditions of the Commons a fresh perspective. This could lead to the argument for virtual measures to not just return in the short term, but also for them to become a permanent feature of proceedings.
In the immediate future it seems out of the question that legislators should be forced to physically return to SW1 to be made to carry out their duties, particularly when virtual voting is a workable alternative. The absurdly long lines that MPs have been made to wait in have comically been compared to the experience one might find themselves facing while at a day out at Alton Towers. But with Ministers having to govern amidst a global crisis and backbenchers having to deal with the many problems their constituents will be having in relation to the virus, they may arguably have better uses of their time than having an extended wait to vote. There is then the issue of the large number of members who due to personal risk or caring duties are not able to be in Westminster in person. Prime Minister Boris Johnson endorsed proxy voting as the best solution to this, but when virtual voting is so easy why not continue with it. Social distancing measures continue to be adhered to in the Commons for the foreseeable, so the usual chamber is unrealistic anyway.
It could also be the case however that some of the temporary measures that have been utilised in Parliament during lockdown could actually be used as a template for longer term reform of how it could function. After the success of MPs being able to both vote on legislation and contribute to proceedings digitally, why not implement measures such as this on a permanent basis. They may not always get sympathy on this front but MPs are intensely busy people with a range of often complex responsibilities, why not try and use technology to make their working lives easier. Other than for the lucky few who represent areas in London, virtual measures could allow those elected more further afield to give more time to their constituencies, as well as arguably ease the burden on their often-forgotten personal lives. The case against has always suggested that the voting queues are a good place for MPs to lobby one another, but surely alternatives could be found to the crowded corridors. There could also be the view that MPs speaking virtually as a regular feature would take some of the theatre out of proceedings, but this is probably only of true concern to lobby correspondents. Members contributing virtually may make for a considered and calmer debate, and probably ease the jeering and booing that puts so many off politics. In recent weeks we have already seen the difference made to Prime Ministers Questions, why not make the future of the chamber more calm and collected as opposed to perpetual rowdiness.
Greg is a Labour activist from Cambridge who has previously worked for a Parliamentary Monitoring Service and in the office of a Member of the European Parliament. He enjoys writing about Labour politics and parliamentary reform. He writes in a personal capacity.
He tweets at @GregCollins8