From electronic voting to better behaviour during PMQs, it's time to drag parliament out of the 19th century—and foster a true modern democracyby Anna McMorrin / September 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
MPs in the debating chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions. Photo: PA Look at Westminster from a distance, and it appears to be an anachronism. A place with rules and a culture of its own and more in common with an old boy’s public school or gentleman’s club than what it should be: an open and outward facing seat of democracy that represents all of us. For most people, the only glimpse into the House of Commons is Prime Minister’s Questions. Noisy and often childlike, it does little to present any sort of dignified picture of parliament as both sides swap insults. Sitting from within, the place seems no more welcoming. My first PMQs last summer was quite an eye-opener. Seated a couple of rows back on the opposition benches, I was unprepared for the volume of noise, and intensity of anger, as each side tested their jousting skills in an effort to win that particular soundbite war. It felt the epitome of arrogance and entitlement: an establishment content with looking inward, playing its own game by its own rules. Certainly a weekly test for our political leaders, but as a window to the world, it lets us down. Parliament is a place of great historical significance. But it is a place for those who “have” rather than those who “have not.” As an MP I can go anywhere, sit anywhere and dine anywhere. I have my own staircase, my own tearoom, my own cloakroom, green benches both inside and outside the chamber. I even have doorkeepers to look after me. But if someone else tries to walk up that staircase, dares to sit on a green bench or enters the cloakroom they are swiftly asked to leave and promptly escorted out. A modern-day democracy should not be a place that fosters this type of privilege. Instead it should actively seek to break down those barriers and become the type of welcoming, open and inclusive environment that we need. And what of the actual business of Parliament? As a new MP learning to contribute to debates, scrutinise and ask questions and make interventions was like learning a whole new language, shrouded in prohibitions and process. To rebel means not getting your voice heard. It’s either work with it or not at all. It’s time this changed. One of my first interventions in the chamber went horribly wrong when I mistakenly referred to a previous speaker’s point and spoke longer than I should have done. The Deputy Speaker pulled me up on it and I sat down a little red faced. We all learn—and as new MPs, we’ve all had our moments—but the archaic systems imposed do little to encourage the wide debate and scrutiny that we need to see to get the best out of our government and our democracy. This is also so in our laws. Increasingly legislation is being searched for, read and used by a wider range of people. Technology has made it accessible to everyone, opening up a world of possibilities. But once found, legislation can be intricate and intimidating. We should be seeking to simplify our language, reduce its excessive complexity and allow those we represent a chance to get involved. Having worked for many years in the Welsh Government and National Assembly of Wales, a relatively young democracy, it’s sometimes difficult to understand the restrictions and old-fashioned ways of Westminster. The daily printing of many hundreds of pages of Hansard, and the many hours waiting to pass through the voting lobbies, seem symptomatic of a place unwilling to be pulled out of the 19th century. Technology means that these things should not need to happen. And a system of electronic voting would simplify this and introduce efficiency to the system. But it is more than just old-fashioned and inefficient. The us-and-them approach, between members and “strangers,” perpetuates privilege at the expense of equality. Why else have sittings until 11 and 12 o’clock at night? These sittings prevent me and many others from getting home to our children—making it impossible for members, like me, who live outside London to live a life with responsibilities. In our new intake, I’m pleased to see a consensus that we are there to shake things up. We’re not there to simply learn the old ways of doing things. With more women elected than ever before and from all different backgrounds, if we achieve anything we must make parliament a better place—more accountable and closer to the people we seek to represent. Shrugging off some of the rules, breaking down that sense of privilege and introducing and dragging it—kicking and screaming—into the modern world would be a start.