This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management.
Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present.
Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.
For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions.
The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates.
Fewer MPs is also likely to change the dynamic in parliament. Although the bear-pit atmosphere of the Commons is often rightly derided as creating more heat than light, the sheer presence of the place when fully-occupied has a concentrating effect on ministers. And a ministerial ability to read the mood of the place and to hold the floor of the chamber – or not – has been a key factor in determining the outcome of numerous critical debates over recent decades from foreign intervention in places like Iraq and Syria, to domestic policies such as tuition fees. A half-empty chamber is unlikely to carry the same political heft.
There may be similar effects on the quality of committee oversight. While many committees have moved quickly to continue their investigations remotely, the forensic questioning of a minister often depends on the unspoken interactions between MPs inside the committee room that enable follow-up. The orchestration of such sessions when MPs are on the other end of an internet connection becomes more difficult, which may in turn diminish the tensions of such proceedings.
However, the bigger problem for committee accountability is one that is less immediately obvious. Attempts by the Home Affairs Select Committee to question Priti Patel since early March have been successively ignored or evaded by the Home Secretary, much to the annoyance of Yvette Cooper, the committee’s chair.
The Home Secretary has been aided in her evasion by wider events related to the pandemic and the Easter holidays, but has been almost entirely absent from the political firmament. Given the lingering questions about the departure of the department’s Permanent Secretary Philip Rutnam, accusations of improper conduct and a highly contentious immigration bill arriving in parliament imminently, it is difficult to see how a minister obliged to walk through the division lobbies alongside all of their colleagues every day could withstand that sort of political pressure for long.
As it is, parliament’s famously archaic and time-consuming voting procedure has provided the thorniest of problems when fewer people can be present. The alternative to forcing 650 jostling MPs through the division lobbies to have their names ticked off by a lobby clerk (albeit on ipad these days) will need to be more sophisticated than Jacob Rees-Mogg’s suggestion that they open a window. But a supermarket-style staggered queue, with MPs six feet apart, snaking back through Central Lobby would dramatically increase the already lengthy 15 minutes it takes to count every head.
Almost every other modern parliament already allows MPs to vote electronically from their seats in the plenary session. And, many parliaments are now simply extending security provisions so that votes can be undertaken remotely. While proposals to introduce electronic voting at Westminster over the last 30 years have traditionally been rejected because of security concerns, the real reason is in fact more to do with the uniquely British problem that the Commons chamber has fewer seats than MPs, making it impossible for all of them to have their own desk.
Assuming that we could get over the technical difficulties, remote electronic voting would alter parliamentary politics in other ways. Almost every MP I have spoken to over the last 25 years at Westminster has defended the practice of voting in the lobbies because it allows them access to ministers who would otherwise be difficult to pin down. Politicians will frequently describe the system as a ‘great leveller’, as lowly backbenchers and cabinet ministers are all forced through the lobbies at the same time. The chance to buttonhole a minister about funding for a local hospital, the quality of a local school or some wider policy issue is cherished by most MPs, and would be difficult to replicate with electronic voting.
The changes will also present new problems for the art of whipping – surely the most physical of all parliamentary arts – in keeping tabs on their own MPs. During my own time as an adviser to successive Leaders of the House of Commons in the last Labour government I was constantly impressed by the ability of the whips to ferret out recalcitrant MPs hiding in different parts of the parliamentary estate. And as I have seen at first-hand it is difficult to resist the carefully-framed requests of a whip who is breathing into your face, but perhaps easier to simply find that you have a dodgy internet connection at home.
The whips’ ability to understand what MPs are thinking, sense where opinions are hardening, and anticipate potential splits within the parliamentary party has always revolved to a large degree on corridor conversations, and the trading of information between politicians and journalists. Anyone who has worked in the Palace of Westminster knows that there are certain cafés and walkways in those buildings that are invaluable for understanding what is really going on in government and parliament. If fewer people are gathering, it potentially makes it more difficult for the whips to do their jobs. But it also makes it more difficult for the lobby journalists to have the sort of snatched face-to-face conversations that will often verify a story, or not.
The COVID-19 crisis has been seized upon by several governments to extend their reach and sideline parliament, as seen most vividly in Hungary. But the danger for the vast majority of parliaments is less in a direct attack, than in the slow erosion of parliamentary oversight. Much of Westminster’s strength comes from what goes on outside its formal proceedings – the behavioural norms and accepted practices that create pressure on government. A digital parliament might have many benefits, but it is up to MPs to ensure that the strengths of analogue politics are also retained.
This blog is co-published with Global Partners Governance and is part of their Parliamentary Response to Crisis series.
This is the latest in a series of Unit blogs in response to the constitutional challenges posed by the coronavirus. To see past blogs in the series, click here. To be notified of future blogs as they go live, sign up for updates in the left sidebar.
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About the author
Greg Power is Founder and Board Chair of Global Partners Governance (@gpgovernance), which works internationally with politicians and governments to strengthen their political systems. Between 2001 and 2005 he was Special Adviser to successive Leaders of the House of Commons, Robin Cook and Peter Hain.