Could the coronavirus transform the Parliamentary process?

28 Mar 2020

 

It is clear that in the near future the Coronavirus will be instrumental in generating real change. For the next few months, at least, we will have to keep distance between ourselves and our loved ones. We will also have to go out without some of the comforts we are used to, and it will be almost inevitable that the economy will suffer for some time. One other thing that may also have to change is democracy in its current form with the government already made changes with the closing of parliament till the 21st April. If this virus takes as long to subside as some experts predict then it is very possible that this will not be the only measure that the government takes to try and enforce social distancing with parliamentarians.

 

Could the 2m rule lead to e-voting?

 

Unless you have had your head in the sand you would have seen that we have all been asked to keep two meters apart. This is hard enough by itself in a densely populated area like Westminster but is near impossible in the crammed voting chambers in parliament which are  in fact smaller than a tennis court. Currently it could be said that parliament is just about coping as MPs have been asked to stay away and only come to the chambers. But is that really possible sustainable if social distancing rules are here for the long term? Can we really ask parliamentarians – the very people who represent us to not fully engage in democracy? One simple answer would be to introduce an e-voting (electronic voting) trial where parliamentarians could fully engage with democracy and vote from the safety of their own homes. Although e-voting seems like a simple solution it does come with its own set of problems. In fact it is an issue  which many MPs have debated and have been reluctant to implement as voting online could be far riskier as it could be susceptible to security and reliability flaws.

 

More Proxy voting or possibly even Job-sharing?

 

With the steady spread of the virus it is more and more likely that increasing number of parliamentarians will become ill. This means that some MPs may have to take some substantial time off. With a pilot scheme now in place, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Proxy Voting becomes more common in the near future if certain MPs cannot get to the chambers due to illness for an extended period of time. If Proxy Voting was used more regularly and became commonly accepted could this potentially open up the debate for further reforms later down the line, as reform in parliament often takes a piecemeal ‘cracks and wedges’ approach where a small piece of reform often opens up debate and opens the door for  larger reform in the future.

 

There has been little debate so far about Job-sharing becoming an option, with the only real discussion centred around a private members bill, but a job-sharing scheme could allow unwell MPs to  retain their parliamentary voice.

Realistically Job-sharing will not be one the first changes made, as it would require substantial constitutionnel changes and could actually cause more problems around democratic fairness and representation Although it is possible that the implementation of proxy voting might open up a wider debate about work in parliament and consequently it might be likely that some actors may consider the push for job-sharing within parliament especially as it has become an accepted staple of the Green party leadership.

 

Could Coronavirus even be a catalyst for leaving the Palace of Westminster?

 

This is a bit more far-fetched but hear me out. If MPs do have to start working from home, and pre-virus parliament was already debating how best to manage the structural repairs to the parliament buildings, is it possible that they decide that leaving Westminster could be more palatable when building work starts?

 

Although this building work will not start till 2025 at the earliest if MPs are forced to adept and do more of their work outside parliament then it is possible that some of the previous objections, such as MP Jack Lopresti’s claim that they should not move as parliament is ‘representative of democracy’ might be overcome because MPs up and down the country are being forced into a situation where they have to deal with life without the very building that some feel represents democracy in the country.

 

Although it has already been agreed  that parliament will leave when the repairs take place the process has been moving at a glacial pace with Chris Bryant MP saying ‘It is downright irresponsible of the Government consistently to delay. The next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will say for the word procrastination: See the inaction of the Tory Government’. Although the virus by itself will not make parliament sit elsewhere it might make sense for repairs to be moved forwards if they will have to leave parliament anyway.

 

Although these are all possibilities it is clear that each of these things happening has a sliding scale of probability  as proxy voting and e-voting are  more likely than the introduction of job-sharing or coronavirus becomes a Catalyst   for moving out of Westminster (temporarily).There is also a possibility that no meaningful changes occur  as parliament has always had a knack of sticking to their rituals, whether this is dragging the speaker to the chair or voting by walking through a lobby.

 

Whatever happens, the current government is being forced to make quick decisions about social distancing and will probably soon be forced to take greater action in terms of their own social distancing. Although some measures have been taken it would be unreasonable for parliament to shut down for ever if we are living with these social distancing measures for the long term. Although some of these suggestions may seem more unrealistic than others it is quite possible that the introduction of a simple temporary measure could lead to wider more permanent reform in the future.

 

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