It’s very rare for parliamentary procedure to be discussed anywhere outside the Westminster bubble. The rules and regulations that fill Erskine May are hardly bed time reading after all.
What’s more, we expect our politicians to have the good sense and nous to reform Parliament as and when necessary, oiling the old, creaking mechanics of our legislative body to ensure it remains fit for purpose and capable of rising to the needs of the present day. Inevitably then, something will have had to have gone badly wrong for this otherwise techy and mundane facet of political life to become a story worthy of Joe Bloggs’ attention, as it did last week on the question of proxy voting.
Undoubtedly, both the Commons and Lords need modernising. It is unacceptable that meaningful action has not already been taken to prevent the debacle we saw on Tuesday – in which the pairing system was cynically undermined to exploit the absence of Jo Swinson, who gave birth a fortnight ago – from ever happening again. It should be a given that such conventions, including the ‘nodding through’ of seriously ill MPs, are free from abuse, but the behaviour of the Tory whips in recent weeks has shone a very public spotlight on the deficiencies of the current framework, more forcefully than anything else making the case for change.
In short, it is high time that MPs, who cannot physically be in the Commons for whatever good reason, are able to do what their constituents put them there to do: vote. Indeed, it’s not as if it is beyond the realms of logic, or for that matter, technology, to devise a system whereby MPs are able to carry out this duty remotely, either by nominating a proxy or by voting electronically. The House of Commons’ Procedure Committee published a detailed report on this very issue in May, and MPs have already passed a motion setting out their support in principle. In the House of Representatives of both Australia and New Zealand, good examples exist of how this could work in practice. It’s now just a case of getting it done.
A degree of level headedness is, however, required. As is so often the case when an organisation seeks to put right a recently exposed wrong, excessive action will follow in an attempt to claw back public confidence. Already, there are calls for a form of digitalised voting to be rolled out in full, cutting out the need for any of these stuffy conventions in the first place. Whilst on the surface, this may seem a sensible solution, such a heavy handed approach will inadvertently damage the fabric of the Commons.
The current voting system has many faults, not least the amount of time each vote eats out of the day (around fifteen minutes). When a series of amendments are being considered to a Bill, that’s a lot of time. But there are real benefits of doing things the old way, and I’m not just talking about maintaining tradition for posterity.
It is in the voting lobbies that some of the most valuable work is achieved. If you’re a backbench MP, the quarter of an hour when everyone is milling around between divisions might be the only time you see a minister without their gaggle of advisors and officials. From localised constituency campaigns to matters of national significance, it gives MPs a rare opportunity to cut out the middle men and directly push a minister on a particular issue. Do not underestimate the importance of these face-to-face discussions; they are a highly effective way of punting issues way up the agenda, and harness important channels of communication right through government.
When it is required, change must come. Introducing proxy voting for those on parental leave certainly falls into that category. But in our eagerness to make the Commons a better and more efficient place to work, and sate a perception that reform is necessary and long overdue, we should be alert to change simply for change’s sake.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.