‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic

Parliament has been forced to adapt its procedures and practices to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by the decisions that the government has made about how parliament should operate during the pandemic.

Legislatures across the world have had to adjust to new ways of working during the coronavirus pandemic, and the UK parliament is no different. All 650 MPs have seen their role transformed as they have adjusted to virtual and then hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons, remote and then proxy voting, the loss of the informal spaces for chats and networking, and moving constituency surgeries and meetings online. For a particular subsection of MPs, however, the last year has brought even more challenge and complexity. We argue that the changes to proceedings and operation of the Commons since March 2020 have disproportionately affected MPs from the smaller opposition parties, highlighting a failure in the decision-making structure to sufficiently take into account the circumstances of these MPs. This failure, we contend, risks delegitimising the Westminster parliament in the eyes of people living in the devolved nations.

The typical view of the House of Commons, with the government on one side and the official opposition on the other, reflects the traditional two-party dominance on the green benches. But if you look to the opposition benches, you will see a growing number of MPs representing smaller parties. Some 73 constituencies (that’s 11% in total) are now represented by parties outside this duality. The smaller parties range in size, from the 47 SNP MPs, to the sole representatives of the Alliance Party and Green Party. They differ politically too: the pro-EU Lib Dems and the Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party share the same small-party benches. But regardless of size or ideology, all small parties and their MPs must deal with an institution designed, both physically and in its rulebook, with an emphasis on the two larger parties, something that this last year has demonstrated well.

The constituencies represented by the 73 small-party MPs are overwhelmingly concentrated outside of England, with 89% located in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even in normal times, travelling to Westminster for these MPs almost invariably involves far longer and more complex journeys than for members representing English constituencies. The pandemic has exacerbated this, with public transport (literally the only option for MPs in Northern Ireland or the Scottish islands) cut drastically. In June 2020 the number of flights from Belfast to London, for example, fell from 12 a day to just one. Virtual participation in the Commons at this time was severely restricted, but the timing of the flights and difficulties securing tickets meant that MPs from Northern Irish constituencies were often unable to be present in the Commons chamber for the first items of business on a Monday or stay for business on Thursdays without being stuck in London (and away from their families and caring responsibilities) all weekend. For one Urgent Question on abortion in Northern Ireland, Alliance MP Stephen Farry had to ask another MP (the Scottish Liberal Democrat, Wendy Chamberlain) to speak on his behalf as he was unable to travel to Westminster at short notice (at this date, no virtual participation was allowed).

These lengthy journeys were further complicated by the concern of members in the devolved nations about unknowingly bringing COVID-19 from London to their constituencies (although this was not universal among all small party MPs, as the case of Margaret Ferrier would demonstrate). Alistair Carmichael told us of one particularly arduous journey in the early days of the pandemic and about how careful he needed to be when travelling between Westminster and his constituency:

When I went home for the Easter recess, I got the sleeper overnight from Euston… I got to Edinburgh, I picked up a hire car in Edinburgh and then drove to Aberdeen where I more or less just camped out for the day in the hire car and went to a couple of shops to buy bits and pieces of office stuff that I would need to work from home. That was the only contact I had with anyone. And then I got the ferry from Aberdeen at 5 o’clock into Orkney at 11 at night where I went into self-isolation for two weeks. And that was a 26-hour journey.

Interview, 2020

We heard about how small-party MPs would stay in Westminster for weeks at a time, to reduce the risk to their constituencies and minimise their travelling—a choice not available to all MPs. Those who were shielding for their own safety or isolating to protect vulnerable family members were deprived of the chance to participate fully in parliamentary business, due to the restrictions placed on virtual participation between 2 June and 30 December 2020. These restrictions have affected MPs from all parties; former government minister Tracey Crouch being denied the opportunity to take part in a debate on breast cancer in Westminster Hall while she was being treated for that very same illness was particularly well-publicised. Labour’s Barbara Keeley has also discussed a similar nonsensical exclusion from parliament. There is no difference across the parties in terms of the impact on individuals as a result of the participation restrictions, and it is clear that the Commons has needlessly missed out on crucial perspectives, and constituents across the country have lost out on representation as a result of these rules. One perhaps unexplored perspective is the impact on the smaller opposition parties, for whom the impact of one or two MPs being unable to take part in key debates has a much greater consequence for the party group. For example, Plaid Cymru’s party representation at Westminster for substantive business has been reduced by a third due to the need for one of their group to remain at home. Some 121 Conservative or 66 Labour MPs would have to be unable to participate to have the same proportionate effect on their parties.

Some small-party MPs felt compelled to attend, even when they did not feel it was safe to do so, in order to represent their party. While a remote voting system had been established in the first lockdown, and was used for divisions in May 2020, the government allowed the time-limited motion authorising its use to lapse. After criticism of long queues to physically vote within the Palace of Westminster, the government extended the proxy voting system in place for MPs on parental leave, first to cover members aged over 70 or unable to attend due to the pandemic, and later to include members even when they are on the parliamentary estate. This has reduced drastically the number of people within the division lobbies, lowering the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Unlike the remote voting system, however, the holder of the proxy votes must be physically present to vote. For the larger parties, one MP can hold literally hundreds of votes—at the time of writing, the Conservative Deputy Chief Whip, Stuart Andrew, is the proxy for 336 of his colleagues. In contrast, the whips of the smaller parties carry just a handful of votes. While there are no rules against being a proxy for a member of another party — Ben Lake, the Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion has been the proxy for SDLP MP Claire Hanna, for example — the small parties are disparate in their politics and, understandably, have tended to send their own proxies for big votes. During the recall to pass Brexit legislation on 30 December 2020, SNP Chief Whip, Patrick Grady, told the House:

I think it is regrettable that the Government have not given us remote voting. That means there are twice as many SNP MPs here today as there otherwise might have been, so I want to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow (David Linden) and for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), who will act as Tellers for us later today. They would not have had to be here if we had had electronic voting.

HC Deb, 30 Dec 2020, c504

Patrick Grady’s reference to the government, in his criticism of the proxy voting system, reflects the executive’s control over the operation of the House of Commons. While the voting system and limits on virtual participation had been agreed by the Commons, this was done through motions worded and tabled by the Leader of the Commons, in the knowledge of a comfortable government majority. While MPs we spoke to welcomed the work of the Commons Procedure Committee to consult and draw on the experiences of all MPs, there was a frustration that the government had not done this. In general, small-party MPs felt they had been excluded from the decision-making process and, in particular, that their specific travel difficulties — as outlined above — had not been taken into account by the government. Furthermore, MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland felt that the Leader of the House was often asking them to breach the rules set by the governments within their own nations in order to travel to Westminster. There seems to have been no official recognition of the importance of ensuring that MPs from all parts of the UK are able to participate in all proceedings or of the value to parliamentary scrutiny which is afforded by the representation and participation of all political parties in the Commons.

The challenges posed to the operation of parliament by the COVID-19 pandemic should not be underestimated. The Speaker, House of Commons Commission and parliamentary staff deserve considerable praise for ensuring that the Commons could continue to meet. It is damaging, however, that decisions taken on virtual and physical proceedings have not given sufficient weight to the necessity of giving all MPs an equal opportunity to participate. This may have long-term and unintended consequences: failure to enable the voices of MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be heard may lead to constituents in these nations feeling voiceless in an institution that no longer represents them.

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About the authors

Dr Louise Thompson is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester.
Dr Alexandra Meakin is Research Associate at the University of Manchester.