It's an outmoded system that makes life harder for MPs who are parents, pregnant or unwell. So why isn't parliament moving on?by Marie Le Conte / January 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
Brexit has done many things to our political discourse—most of them bad. A bleakly amusing one is that it keeps shining a light on odd and outdated bits of parliamentary procedure.
Take the case of Jo Swinson last summer. The Liberal Democrat MP had recently given birth and was due to be “paired” with Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis on a knife edge vote, meaning that he would not go vote either, thus cancelling out her absence. He did vote in the end, and chaos ensued.
This brings us to what happened this week, Labour MP Tulip Siddiq postponing her caesarian to be in the Commons for the Meaningful Vote, and why it happened: Siddiq said she no longer trusted the pairing system.
“We urgently need a better system for women who are heavily pregnant or MPs who are seriously ill”, said Labour MP Diana Johnson. “In any other workplace this would not be tolerated.”
“I fully understand that the role of an MP is a unique one but new ways of treating MPs with decency and compassion, as we would expect for our constituents, is long overdue.”
It did not have to go this way; over the past year, MPs have debated the idea of proxy voting twice, but things are yet to change. This is partly because Westminster has a lot on its collective plate at the moment, and partly because a wider discussion needs to be had about voting in Parliament.
After all, the current system is laughably antiquated; whenever the division bell rings on the estate, MPs have precisely eight minutes to leg it to the lobbies, then have to loiter for a while.
Each vote takes around 15 minutes, and there are a lot of them; according to research by the Institute for Government, MPs spent just under 48 hours in divisions between June 2017 and June 2018.
This doesn’t feel like the best use of parliamentarian’s time, but there are reasons why voting still works this way. In a place where there are few official rules and most processes are dictated by old conventions, the informal is key.
The Palace of Westminster was also built as a series of members’ clubs hidden away in an architectural bubble, and once you leave it, it is hard to remain in touch with what happens within its walls. As a result, once MPs become ministers and decamp to their respective departments, they might as well be miles away.
Still, there is one solution to those two issues, and it is the voting lobbies. By having to faff about in a locked room so frequently, MPs get to collar their minister of choice should they need to, and tell them about an issue in their constituency or the policy idea that is dear to them.
As academic Nigel Fletcher explained, “The conventional wisdom is that the ability for backbenchers to lobby ministers —quite literally—in the lobby is, on its own, worth preserving the existing system.”
“Most MPs who go into Parliament as fresh new modernisers declare that it is a complete anachronism and a total waste of time; the SNP did it in 2015, and so did the Blairites in 1997. Then a few years pass, and they realise some of the benefits, they change their minds.”
Cracking the whips
Another group benefits from the current system: the whips. “You still have this system where you have to go to the whips and say ‘can I be excused next Tuesday?’ and they say ‘why do you want to be excused?’ and you have to give a reason. It’s like being at school”, says MP Ann Coffey. “You have to behave yourself if you ever want to get off.”
If there was to be an extensive proxy voting system or an entirely different voting system altogether, the whips would lose that one extra bit of power over their benches. If the Houses were to go for the latter—electronic voting is the example given the most often—it is true that MPs might also lose out, by no longer being able to corner ministers in person in a convenient place.
At least, this is what people who oppose the idea say. Junior minister Guy Opperman is one of them. “Our system requires attendance, involvement and generally the listening to of debates,” he says. “Electronic voting would undermine the importance of advocacy, debate and the importance of Parliament.”
There is a point to this: if MPs are no longer required to linger in the Palace, the consequences might be problematic. One example of this comes from debates in the Chamber, and how technology changes how they are conducted.
“Originally, there was this idea that if MPs were planning to vote on issues, that they should be in the Chamber for the debate, but that’s no longer the case,” Fletcher explained. “They have televisions in their offices, and they can watch it there then go vote at the end, but there’s no way of quantifying that, and you lose that personal side.”
It might be a more practical way to run things, but the sight of rows of empty green benches is a forlorn one, and it is unclear how closely MPs follow debates on their TV screens anyway.
Or maybe it isn’t; others argue if MPs aren’t physically stuck in the Chamber—or in a division lobby—they can dedicate more time to working on issues they really do care about.
“A lot of an MP’s life is about lobbying,” Coffey said. “I spend my life lobbying ministers, lobbying other MPs, lobbying particular groups to try and advance the causes I’m interested in. I can’t both be in the Chamber and do that lobbying.”
Eating your vegetables
This is an interesting line to tread. Some MPs are very attached to division lobbies as they can speak to ministers in there, while others feel that they could spend that time speaking to other people instead. Who is right? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
As one academic who did not want to be named pointed out, MPs’ preferences shouldn’t be the sole drive behind changes in how Parliament works; “If you ask children what they want for dinner, they say they don’t ever want to eat vegetables—which is why we don’t ask children what they want for dinner.”
If it is shown that a different voting system could and make Parliament more welcoming to parents, carers and those suffering from illness, perhaps they shouldn’t be given a choice.
As author of The Good Parliament report Sarah Childs pointed out, parliamentarians will have to leave the Palace sooner rather than later while extensive repairs are being conducted— “so why the hell not try some new ideas?”
“It’s about a workplace, and how it accommodates people who will reproduce and have children while they’re in the institution,” she adds.
Institute of Government researcher Alice Lilly agreed, and said that proxy voting was the only change likely to happen in the foreseeable future—but there is a catch. “The idea seems to be going somewhere; the proposals were quite limited, in that you wouldn’t be able to proxy vote on things like a confidence vote, and it would have to be an opt-in system.”
“But the question is whether Parliament is going to find any time to actually debate that and change the rules.”
This, sadly, sounds about right. Another consequence of the never-ending Brexit debate is that other issues can crop up for a few hours, at most a few days, then disappear again for months on end without anything having changed.
Maybe Siddiq’s case will be the last straw, and things will start changing soon then perhaps change even more over the next few years, and Parliament will be on its way to becoming a modern workplace.
Or maybe not.