For the last week we have now enjoyed the benefits of voting in Parliament from the comfort of our own homes, one could even do it without getting out of bed, such is the convenience of modern technology.
To be fair, it does take just a little bit of getting used to: the Chancellor managed to vote against the Government in a division last week by pressing the wrong button, but I’m sure he’ll get the hang of it soon enough. It wouldn’t have happened in a physical division because a Government whip would have been barring the way.
When I was first elected in 1997 there was a huge influx of new MPs, partly because there had been an unusually large retirement cohort, but more so because of the huge Labour landslide wiping out so many previously safe Conservative seats. The result was a great deal of overcrowding in whichever division lobby the Labour Party happened to be voting in -whether it was ‘aye’ or ‘no’ the crush was just the same.
With so many new MPs not having experienced this crowded and prolonged voting system previously, there was an immediate demand to move to electronic voting.
A new committee was set up to examine the possibilities: The Select Committee on Modernisation.
It took some 18 months to produce its report, but by then it fell on deaf ears.
The new MPs had by then had quite long enough to grow used to voting by filing into separate lobbies and being marked off by the division clerks as they emerged. More importantly, they had had long enough to appreciate the huge advantage of being often able to rub shoulders with colleagues and senior ministers, even the Prime Minister himself.
This is the huge advantage of the Westminster way of voting: it provides the opportunity to exchange information and grab the attention of the key decision makers where they cannot get away, and they are unprotected by officials and spin doctors. An enormous amount of important business takes place in the division lobbies.
What we managed to see off for years with the Committee on Modernisation, has been achieved in mere days by Covid19: we now have a fully functioning electronic voting system, and even if you are physically present in the Chamber of the House of Commons when a division is called, you are not now allowed to go into the lobbies to vote: you have to go to a PC, IPAD, or smartphone to record your vote.
This system is, of course, only a temporary expedient during the Covid19 pandemic, but these temporary things have a habit of surviving. How convenient to vote from home and not to have to trouble yourself with travel to London at all, and just think of the savings.
Already there are rumblings from MPs from more distant constituencies, and those with young families, and with private commercial interests which demand their time and presence.
My fear is that some newer MPs have not been in Parliament long enough to have fully appreciated the importance of the lobby voting system to their effective performance as an elected representative. After, all they were only elected in mid-December, then there was Christmas and not a great deal of voting in the weeks thereafter, and hardly time to settle into their role before the ‘virtual Parliament’ was imposed on us.
The battle over this ancient, but vitally important Parliamentary procedure is looming