Virtual parliament: which innovations should endure?

MPs may soon return to Westminster after a period of remote working. But they disagree on which aspects of the virtual proceedings to preserve

May 18, 2020
Photo:  UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire
Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire

Dragging the Palace of Westminster into the 21st century was impossible until it wasn’t; years of debates on how to modernise the place were seemingly going nowhere, until there was no other choice.

The “virtual parliament”—or “hybrid parliament”, if you want to be precise—was set up in just a few short weeks, and suddenly MPs were able to vote electronically, and address the chamber from the comfort of their homes.

The novelty was amusing at first, with the first hybrid PMQs turning into an episode of Through the Keyhole, where backbenchers were scrutinised for their Zoom set up as well as their inquiries to Boris Johnson.

Some drawbacks also became apparent early on, as chancellor Rishi Sunak managed to vote against his own government on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill by clicking on the wrong button.

Still, this is all looking to be short-lived. Last week, leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that he intended to wind up the scheme as soon as possible, and Conservative whips are said to be keen to get their MPs back in the chamber to support the prime minister during PMQs.

Though the hybrid parliament was never meant to last forever anyway, those changes have now proven to be functional, and it would feel like a waste to unquestionably let the House return to its old ways without at least reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. Though MPs currently have bigger fish to fry, it is worth asking some of them what they have made of this sudden revolution, and whether it made life in the Commons better or worse.

For a start, virtual debates probably won’t be missed by many MPs. “The way in which you're engaging with people from your bedroom or your living room is limited” says Chi Onwurah, Labour MP and shadow minister for digital, science and tech.

“Video engagement is not the same as being there face-to-face with a minister. You also lose the spontaneity, because you have to put in questions five days in advance, so you can't ask a question about something a constituent emailed you about in the morning.”

Similarly, time limits on debates have proven to be an issue for some, including Conservative MP and party vice chair Andrew Bowie: “A rather controversial element [of the Agriculture Bill] was being proposed and I was due to speak in that bill, but because of the way the virtual parliament works, even though I was on the call list, time ran out, and I wasn't able to get in and explain to my voters why I was voting the way I was. That was obviously frustrating.”

These criticisms seem fair; policymaking in Britain (as elsewhere) works best when members are able to make their voices heard, and clunkiness around time limits and pre-arranged questions will always blunt that.

Voting, on the other hand, is a more complex issue. As has been discussed on this magazine’s website before, the lobby voting system—which involves MPs walking into one of two rooms to get counted, and takes around 15 minutes per division—feels obviously outdated.

In fact, the SNP has long argued for it to be scrapped. “I would like to see electronic voting continue,” says deputy leader Kirsty Blackman, citing its advantages for disabled MPs as an obvious argument in favour of it, as well as the fact that it is “significantly quicker.”

While these are both valid points, most MPs have long had reservations about any long-term changes to parliamentary voting. According to Onwurah, “voting is a huge privilege and responsibility and you should be accountable for that, it should be done and seen to be done; the problem with electronic voting is that it's done but it's not seen to be done.”

Similarly, Bowie argues: “it's important that MPs are seen to be doing their duty, in the parliament to which they were elected. Every MP knows that when they're going to be elected from whatever part of the country they're coming from, they're going to have to travel to London to do their job.”

That being said, all of them agree that electronic voting could be used in exceptional circumstances. As Bowie puts it, “there are elements of the electronic voting procedure that could be kept in order to solve some issues; I mean, nobody wants to go back to the days when we were rolling in MPs at death's door on wheelchairs or trolleys through the division lobbies to vote. That's not something we ever ought to go back to.”

Then there are the wider questions of how much modern tech should be allowed to change the way British politics functions. The 2020 hybrid parliament came to be because there was no other choice—and no time to prevaricate—but any long-term innovations need discussing.

After all, the ways of the Palace may seem puzzling to newcomers, but most often find after a few years that there is a method to the madness, or rather—a reason why things are the way they are. Technological innovations can certainly help smooth certain processes, or make them more accessible, but anything more fundamental needs thorough justifying.

“I don't think the 21st century or any sort of future” calls for “a tech libertarian future that says that we're all at home and it's robots going out to sort out the world,” concludes Chi Onwurah. “It's for people to decide what kind of technology works for society, but we still want physical engagement as well as technology. Having MPs in the same place, talking and engaging with each other, representing their constituents, it's part of what a representative democracy is about.”