Parliament Enters the 21st Century, begrudgingly…..

PB Consulting’s Ben Rowden gives his thoughts on the UK’s virtual parliament and its implications for the democratic process…

Parliament is a funny old institution. The current format has largely been around since around 1801, with a few periods of change (like when Ireland became a free state) since. That said, many of its traditions stretch back much further. In this time it has shown itself to be, at best, resistant to change and at worst incapable of it. Yet, COVID-19 forced Parliament into a very new, and uneasy reality.

You don’t need to look back far for anecdotal stories or clear evidence of how Parliament has been slow to ‘modernisation’ – Margaret Thatcher infamous recalled how the Members Room for female MP’s had an ironing board in it when she was first elected in 1959. Indeed, Parliament only started broadcasting on television in late 1989.

Yet Parliament has started sitting virtually, in part at least. Under the new plans for the House of Commons and House of Lords, MPs and Peers will table questions via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Ministers will answer from the comfort of their Whitehall offices. Select Committees have already started taking video-conference evidence sessions and MPs will be limited to just 50 in the Chamber at any one time.

It’s not just the outward looking activity which is changing either – MPs are now holding video calls with constituents, town-hall like zoom conferences are seeing backbenchers reach out to hundreds of constituents at once and Facebook live-streams are keeping constituents increasingly updated.

So what does this mean for Parliamentary democracy, and for those seeking to hold Government to account and influence their representatives?

Let’s start with the positives. Connectivity is a hallmark of openness and good democratic governance. When people feel connected to their representatives they simultaneously feel more represented and heard. Likewise, for parliamentarians this may well be an opportunity to connect with new constituents, from a wider cross section of society. For many this will be a source of political capital they will be unwilling to give up once lockdown restrictions ease. Social media was already changing the way in which MPs were engaging with their constituents, COVID-19 may just have made virtual engagement a more prominent feature of a MPs life than before.

Equally, the country may see a shift in its political geographic centre. Decentralisation is a word that many modern governments have thrown around in effort to display their commitment to giving communities more local power. Yet, for organisations, charities, and campaign groups reaching MPs and genuinely influencing Parliament has often meant expensive and restrictive trips down to London. Equally, Parliament being a purely physical entity has ensured that for MPs, London largely remains their area of work and rest. The Westminster Bubble didn’t invent itself.

This is not necessarily the fault of MPs – every sector will have a geographic hub, and politics is no different. However, if MPs increasingly are able to hold Government to account from different regions of the country, and increasingly exposed to more groups and constituents face to face more often, the London-grip may loosen. When taken alongside a current Government which has prided things such as the ‘northern powerhouse’ and ‘levelling up’ at the top of its agenda, it’s not unforeseeable to see Parliament gain a greater national presence.

However, people shouldn’t get too ahead of themselves just yet. A virtual Parliament in response to COVID-19 may be a catalyst for modernisation, but it isn’t necessarily all rosy. For starters, there is a genuine fear that Minister’s will find themselves less accountable when faced with questions on a screen. The roar of the Commons alone humbles its Members and reminds them of their duty to Parliament and people – replicating that experience via Zoom is a difficult task. Parliamentary authorities must ensure that Government doesn’t find itself becoming less accountable during this time.

Likewise, the proposed parliamentary arrangements do little to address debates or the passage of legislation. These, along with votes, will still be held in person. Remote voting has been pushed by a growing number of MPs for quite some time now, yet resistance to the idea is strong. If I say so myself, resistance is fair. Parliament is the beating heart of the democratic process – and votes which change people’s lives should not be taken light-heartedly over the click of a mouse. The public righty expect their representatives to turn up to work. Likewise, the system of remote voting is open to new security risks, from staff voting on MPs behalf to cyber-attacks. Policy members will do well to weigh up these risks.

COVID-19 has seen the State impact and enter people’s lives on a scale unseen since the end of World War Two. From the underwriting of the British economy through to expansion of police powers, the Government is wielding more power today than it was a few months ago. That power comes from Parliament and in turn, the British public. At that time then it is more important than ever that Parliament is effective in its scrutiny. Increasingly the virtual element of Parliament has the power to ‘level up’ our democracy and voter engagement, but it would be risky to see it as the answer to all of Parliament’s problems.