Voting in the House of Commons in 1857. The hats were better then. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Why MPs can no longer vote by click

Voting through the lobbies is an inconvenience worth preserving

Following its Whitsun mini-break, Parliament is back this Tuesday. The House of Commons will be sitting for three weeks. This needs to be time well spent, because on 21 June Parliament will rise again for its long summer recess and will not return until the autumn.

But how many MPs will make the journey to Westminster today? Disagreement between Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, and the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, has sown confusion about what they should expect, how voting will take place, and whether they should really be there at all.

The Speaker has made his position clear that the maintenance of social distancing measures means there can be no more than fifty members seated in the chamber at any one time. If Tories were geeing-up to give their prime minister a supportive backing track at PMQs, then this restriction all but hits the mute button. Whatever the argument that legislating by Zoom was a faint Daguerreotype compared to the glorious Technicolour of the real thing, the reality is that the next three weeks will feel more like olden days in miniature.

It is not just through political calculation that the government has called time on the hybrid model that permitted MPs to contribute and vote from the comfort of their own homes – assuming it really was their own homes. Reasons of outlook and principle are also in play. And that makes for a narrower room for compromise.

Politicians should not encourage others to return to work where they can safely do so whilst – when it comes to themselves – continuing to keep themselves snug at home (“it’s one rule for us and one for them” – or was that just last week’s catchphrase?). But not everyone who can attend Westminster necessarily should. This practical necessity has been swept-aside in the rush to do away with click-screen legislating before members become too comfortable with it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is alert to the wiles of encroaching modernisers for whom the crisis provided an opportunity to entrench permanent work-from-home tech.  He is determined to ensure that members do not get overly comfy with the easy way out.

But would continuing with the hybrid model for just three more weeks really have sold the pass? Among those MPs who are choosing to continue self-isolating are blameless elderly members who feel travelling to Westminster exposes them to risk. Also, staying away are nationalist MPs from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, who can use the excuse that travel to Westminster goes against the spirit – if not the law (where too have we heard that before?) – of the travel restrictions of their devolved administrations and puts their family and constituents at needless risk. By sticking to this interpretation, they are outraged that the abandonment of online participation is an English Tory trick to disenfranchise the elected representatives of the people of Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland).

legislating by Zoom was a faint Daguerreotype compared to the glorious Technicolour of the real thing

Voting by mouse-click – whether from home or from the easy chair in MPs’ parliamentary office – would be a far more efficient way of conducting business than having to troop through division lobbies. For some, it is as simple as that, and the sooner permanence is brought to the temporary expediencies hastened by coronavirus the better.

The arguments against the modernisers are both practical and symbolic. Remote voting could be hacked or members might click the wrong option. Remarkably, this tech-incompetence has already happened, with culprits including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who last month clicked the wrong option and voted against his own government’s agriculture bill by mistake. It is considerably more difficult to get this confused when you are standing patiently in a line of MPs of your own party.

There are weightier considerations than this, however. To the Leader of the House’s frame of mind, voting on legislation is not something to be conducted with as little fuss as possible so that MPs can spend more time answering constituent’s correspondence, joining fact-finding missions and committees or attending photo ops for page eight of their local newspaper. The division lobby is not to be seen as an inconvenience, but as the essence of the legislature. It ought to demand a few minutes of honourable members’ time and a small requirement of physical effort in putting one foot in front of the other (even if they are mostly following whips’ orders). It should not be a one-click exercise conducted with all the majesty of ordering vegetables online from Tesco.

But in observing social distancing, passing through the lobby may involve forming a kilometre-length queue. There does have to be some sort of trade-off between discharging responsibilities in a manner befitting their seriousness whilst being mindful of productivity in parliamentary proceedings. The next three weeks will show whether a measure of ingenuity can be summoned to bring the dignified and the efficient together. The alternative could be a low farce.

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