Virtual Parliament: A golden opportunity which shouldn’t be missed

By Milton Brown.

In 2010 the Liberal Democrats found themselves ‘kingmakers’ and decided upon electoral reform as their number one bargaining request, creating the opportunity that electoral reform campaigners had been waiting for. Mistakes were made, not least settling upon the Hillary Clinton of electoral system in AV+, which failed to either inspire its natural supporters or win over others. Ultimately, the opportunity was missed with gusto, and it will be a long time yet before electoral reform campaigners aren’t met with rebuttals of “we voted against it in 2011”.

The current social distancing measures present a range of similar opportunities for modernisation of Parliamentary processes. In order to make the most of them, it’s important to both focus on the specific opportunities available and remain aware of the challenges presented that could risk leaving a similar outcome to that of electoral reform in 2011.

The clearest opportunity in our midst is to maintain some of the changes once the crisis is over. Some of these have already been made, others are still to come. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see Parliamentary proceedings taking place almost entirely via Zoom or all parliamentary votes taking place online any time soon, but now that the logistics have been worked out, there is little reason why they can’t be applied to situations that truly warrant them.

For example, in 2018 Naz Shah MP was required to vote in a hospital wheelchair, against doctor’s advice. Tulip Siddiq MP had to postpone the birth of her son to vote. For the former, conventions exist that could prevent it, and for the latter, proxy voting has since been brought in for MPs on parental leave. But these clearly weren’t enough at the time, and only extend so far, whereas technological solutions could allow sick or otherwise incapable MPs to vote online. Video conferencing tools could allow these MPs to also participate; maybe not in House of Commons debates, but perhaps involve themselves in committee proceedings or Westminster Hall. And these are the extreme examples, but there are far more common issues that could be tackled, not least MPs with young children having to regularly work late into the night, or fly between their constituencies and Westminster twice a week.

There’s no reason to stop there though; the real opportunity that now exists has a much wider scope. Many previous suggestions of modernisation have been discarded without much thought, with an implicit if not explicit sense of “it’s just not how things are done” or even “there’s no way it would work”. Well, necessity is the mother of invention, and now that certain barriers have been knocked down, proponents need to take advantage.

Now, when suggesting online voting for service personnel abroad, these arguments won’t hold up. There’s other matters to be worked out, such as pseudonymity, accessibility and scale, but ultimately, if it only takes a few weeks for MPs to be able to vote online, why isn’t it possible to use technology to allow our military to exercise their democratic right? The same can be said for people with severe disabilities, who needn’t be forced to travel to a ballot box in order to carry out their democractic right without relying on a proxy or outdated use of the post.

Beyond that, the speed and ease of change that we’re seeing opens up all sorts of other possibilities. Parliament has decided to temporarily move out of Parliament for its restoration and renewal. When this takes place in the middle of this decade, it will create an opportunity for renewal of more than just the Palace of Westminster. Having seen the fundamental changes that have been possible throughout this crisis, we have to be asking ourselves what else can be improved when the window emerges? We may not have the desperate need of the current time, but there’s certainly far greater potential for change.

But for any of this to happen, pitfalls need to be avoided. Stepping away from politics to look at football for example, vast implementation failures with VAR (video assistant referee) have soured the relationship between sport and technology. This is despite goal-line technology being an unquestionable success only years beforehand – and plenty of working examples from other sports.

There are three key challenges that those implementing technology into Parliament are faced with:

  1. Technical issues – it is vital that implementation isn’t marred with technical errors. So far we haven’t seen this, and for the most part the limited Parliamentary proceedings have gone without a hitch. We’ll see if that continues over time and once more complicated elements are introduced, voting particularly. It won’t require a major hiccup for any technical issues to have a significant impact on feasibility once the current situation is no more.
  2. Efficacy – Currently, the bar for what is required from virtual systems is pretty low, as a result of the alternative being non-existent. However, this will not be the case afterwards, and indeed, any systems will likely be expected to provide higher levels of ease of use, security, simplicity, etc. than necessary to improve upon current practices. If MPs are missing votes without the requirement to attend the chamber, if less MPs are participating in debates, if less information comes from select committee hearings, it will make the task of arguing for the continuation of such measures when they’re no longer vital far more difficult. Therefore, steps need to be taken to ensure that the highest standards are met from the outset.
  3. Maintaining tradition – While it may not seem of the utmost importance to modernisers, one of the key resistances to the use of virtual tools remaining will be that of maintaining Parliament’s traditions – even those that seem counter-intuitive.  The Speaker has insisted that MPs using Zoom continue to dress and address each other as they would in the Chamber, and any future advances must follow the same.

It will be years until we really see what impact coronavirus has had on the way Parliament operates, but if we want to see a modernised Parliament come from it, action needs to be taken right away.

Milton Brown is a volunteer with WebRoots Democracy. He works as a Parliamentary Assistant and is studying for an MSc in Public Policy and Management at Birkbeck, University of London. Image credit: UK House of Commons.

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