Artillery Row

The Zoom Parliament is here – but hopefully not to stay

Remote voting may encourage MPs to be more independent, but politics is necessarily a team sport

MPs are about to set up a virtual parliament alongside the real thing. Will this finally drag an ancient institution into the 21st century, or will it make us better appreciate why physical presence is so important to the way we do politics?

There is a strong movement both within parliament and outside it to keep MPs in their constituencies. In fact, most voters would rather have their politicians sorting out problems at home. There are reasons why physical presence in parliament matters and why Zoom, while essential now, is no long-term solution.

MPs in marginal constituencies worry that while they are in London, their opponents are getting a campaigning advantage. Much better to submit parliamentary questions online and get back to knocking on doors.

Debates are no different. Why sit in the chamber for hours waiting to be called when you could be doing something useful like delivering leaflets?

And voting? If you can vote remotely to evict people from a Big Brother house, surely we can do it in the House of Commons?

It’s true. There’s an awful lot of hanging around. You often don’t know if you’ll be voting at twenty-minute intervals through to 11pm or whether there might not be another vote again. Still, you have to wait just in case.

That’s when everyone gravitates to the tea room. It’s just behind the chamber so you can pop-in and out to vote quickly. In the queue to pay for your tea and toast, you might end up standing next to the secretary of state for work and pensions – which is lucky because you really needed to mention a problem with the Child Support Agency.

It’s also when you end up sitting at a table with other MPs you might never normally speak to and discover that they are dealing with an increase in Child Support Agency cases too. Another MP might overhear and join in. Soon you discover that everyone is having the same problem.

At some point Frank Field might join you, someone whose experience in this area is unmatched in the country. He not only knows about the history of these problems, but he’s got ideas for how to deal with them.

Of course, you can make official appointments with ministers in their departments, but this is different. The tea room is private and personal. Just like you, the minister is an MP representing their constituency. You are all equal and your vote counts for no more than anyone else’s.

Having said that, very tall people are at a premium in the voting lobbies. If you haven’t managed to bump into the person you need to see, you might ask Toby Perkins or Daniel Kawczynski (depending on your party) to stand at the end of the lobby and spot them for you over the crush.

It’s definitely not essential and it’s probably not even efficient but it does show how organic and dependent on human contact our Parliament is. It is why debates can sometimes be so electrifying.

The noise can be so loud that you literally cannot hear yourself speak. The heckling, if you misjudge the mood of the chamber, the difficult questions that members ask in interventions when you have no idea what the answers are – they force you to think on your feet and under pressure.

It would be impossible to get any of that in a video conference where you can only speak one at a time and in strict order. It might work in the European Parliament but not here. You’d need a speakers’ list, for a start, and then you lose any incentive to stay and listen to what others have to say. Watching a series of wide-angled chins reading from a piece of paper on your laptop is about as exciting as doing the washing-up (which, since you’re at home, you’ve just seen needs doing).

video conference might work in the European Parliament but not here

Normally, if you want to take part in a debate, you have to be there, physically, for the opening statements and closing remarks. You might have a rough idea if you’ll be called at the beginning, middle or end of a debate, but most people are there for the duration, listening to others (especially the ones you disagree with), engaging with them, probing them and being probed in return.

Importantly, Zoom doesn’t allow you to read body language. You can no longer see those small signs of uncertainty in your debating opponents. If a minister shows that he or she is even slightly wrong-footed by a question, everyone (even people on their own side) senses it. This is when, to get out of a corner, they can let something slip, sometimes the very thing they wanted not to say.

It is brutal and it is not for everyone but it is very effective in holding the government to account. An online parliament would certainly be gentler and kinder, but you would get none of the drama of big decisions – and that drama is important and very real.

When you vote, you walk through the lobby up to the clerk sitting high at what looks like a panelled pulpit with a list of all MPs and a line is drawn through your name to register your vote.

It seems quaint and you would think it could easily be replaced by a push button pad in your home or office. But what happens if you disagree with your party when the numbers are tight and your vote might be the difference between winning or losing?

Breaking the whip feels like a terrible act of betrayal, and in our Parliament, the disloyalty is physical. The hours building up to it, friends coming and sitting next to you in the chamber to try and dissuade you, the moment the division bell rings, standing up and walking into the other lobby – the one filled with MPs not from your party – how hard that is in person and how easy it would be online.

Some might think that is a good thing, that MPs need to be more independent-minded. They certainly would be in a virtual parliament. But we would lose the reason why those party ties matter. For one thing, most people vote for a political party at elections rather than for the local candidate. Almost no MP would get to parliament without the party ticket on which they stood.

It is what makes politics a team sport, and like any competitive game, it is always better live, cheering and groaning close-up with your tribe, because at heart, politics (like sport) is about actual people and their lives – a reality that is easily lost in the tiny heads and tinny voices of the virtual world.

This isn’t to say that Zoom can’t improve some things. It’s low carbon, convenient and for cooperative ventures like gathering evidence and information, it’s perfect. Select committees have been meeting virtually since the lockdown and that has been a great success. Online platforms might allow future evidence sessions beamed in as easily from South America as South Antrim.

Hopefully Zoom will help Parliament scrutinise what government is doing at such an important time in our history – a time when parliament can’t physically meet. I suspect, though, that rather than usher in a future of virtual parliaments, the Zoom experiment will make us feel what we have lost, and help us appreciate more why physical presence in politics really matters.

Otherwise we might end up with PMQs done by email. And no-one wants that.

Natascha Engel was Labour MP for North East Derbyshire 2005-17 and a Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons

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