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Artillery Row

Lend me your votes

Why is Stuart Andrew able to cast 203 votes in each Commons division?

Implacable defenders of the hereditary peerage used to justify the infrequent attendance of backwoodsmen peers with the explanation that they did turn up to address their lordships when they felt it necessary, for instance to share a particular expertise or opinion on a subject that was dear to them. They thus made their contribution with discrimination: the upper chamber benefited from their wisdom when it was most valuable, without being burdened by their desire to behave as automatons to their whips’ desires. They were peers of the realm, God damn it. If you wanted cannon fodder, try the lower chamber.

Where hereditary peers once led, the people’s tribunes now follow. Fear of Covid and instructions to socially distance have transformed MPs into models of discrimination in deciding what parliamentary business merits their attendance. With elderly members encouraged not to turn up to the parliamentary estate at all, MPs’ office staff instructed to work from home and the ability to sit in the Commons chamber strictly rationed, only politicians with a burning desire to do so are speaking in debates and voting in person.

It is also a parliament with a highly fractious proportion of Conservative members. The theory goes that by working from home, MPs no longer feel the beady eyes of the whips’ office boring into them in the tearoom or central atrium of Portcullis House. Freed from this proximity to colleagues they ought not to upset, social constraint gives way. The plethora of backbench groups – among them, the ERG, the Northern Research Group, the China Research Group, the Common Sense Group and now Steve Baker’s and Mark Harper’s Covid Recovery Group – have created a safe space for the likeminded through communicating and organising on WhatsApp or Signal.

And yet the third Newtonian law of motion suggests that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whilst social distancing from the whips office makes some MPs more independently-minded, their absence from the division lobbies means that they vote by proxy.

Stuart Andrew is the most effectual parliamentarian in the history of British democracy

Yesterday, David Davis revealed that Stuart Andrew is the most effectual parliamentarian in the history of British democracy. For, in his role as deputy chief whip, he casts 203 proxy votes on behalf of non-attending Conservative MPs.

The comparison to trade union bosses with their block votes comes to mind, but is not exact. If an MP wishes to withdraw the proxy vote lent to Andrew or to instruct him not to cast it with the government, that wish is honoured. But having entrusted the deputy chief whip with a default vote in favour of the government in divisions, the greatest problem is not having to call him to say “Stuart, sorry to call you at this hour, but I’m having doubts,” but rather to relax that he has taken care of the voting process for them, and to disengage from a primary obligation of the legislative process.

Voting is not just about robotically trooping through the correct division lobby when the bell rings. The preparation for doing so knowing a measure is on the order paper and coming up, the congregation and exchange of thoughts with other colleagues considering the same measure, the attention to the substance behind the performance – all help to focus the mind. Sitting at home, leaving the business to the deputy chief whip to do the thinking for you, encourages a cruise control mentality towards what is being debated and voted on. Nothing to worry about, probably, leave it to Stuart.

This is a parliament of backwoodsmen, but – in a reversal of the habits of hereditary peers of yore – backwoodsmen who have their vote counted by not turning up. The real parliamentarians, many of whom are active in the WhatsApp groups, are instinctively immune to such laziness. But for others the ready opportunity of letting the whips’ office do it all for you is a temptation to disengage. There are 364 Conservative MPs, and Andrew is now voting for 203 of them.

This is a parliament of backwoodsmen, but backwoodsmen who have their vote counted by not turning up

The picture is not so different on the Opposition benches. Chris Grady performs the same service for SNP members who no longer fancy the trek to Westminster as does Wendy Chamberlain for the Liberal Democrats. Most (112 out of 200) Labour MPs are letting the whip, Chris Elmore, vote on their behalf. However, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, does the honours for those on the Left like John McDonnell, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler and (currently suspended) Jeremy Corbyn, who do not feel comfortable entrusting their vote to a genuine Labour whip.

In January 2019, Theresa May’s government introduced a pilot scheme for proxy voting for MPs with new-born babies. The pilot was extended and a review instigated to consider widening eligibility to other groups whose personal obligations dragged them away from their place of work. Events have conspired to broaden significantly what was in mind. The majority of MPs are now using proxy votes to keep Westminster “Covid-secure” by avoiding it.

When the shadow of the virus finally lifts from MPs’ lives, there will many who will point to how well the hybrid parliament with its proxy voting worked and that there should be no return to outdated working practices, the dreaded “old ways” that existed before working from home became the new big thing.

Modishness and laziness will make a powerful combination. But when social distancing is no longer a requirement, parliamentarians should reacquaint themselves with old habits. Voting in person is the clearest, most recognisable, expression of legislators taking personal responsibility and demonstrating respect for the process of enacting laws. As soon as health concerns permit, proxy voting should end.

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