Avoiding an ‘elective dictatorship’: How Parliament can learn from the pandemic

Electoral Reform Society
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Electoral Reform Society

Posted on the 16th July 2020

From virtual contributions to debates, to remote voting, the House of Commons showed that it could modernise quickly when faced with a health emergency.

A key House of Commons’ committee has been consulting on how Parliament adapted to cope with the Covid pandemic.

While the measures are currently only temporary, Parliament is right to look at what worked, what didn’t – and what might be worth keeping.

Vital changes

For example, allowing remote voting for MPs was crucial – it meant constituents could still be represented despite most members not being able to come to Westminster. Beyond the pandemic, why not consider allowing remote voting for pregnant MPs, or those who are too ill to attend in person?

Sadly, the government shut down remote voting last month – leading to the ludicrous ‘conga line’ queues of MPs voting (pictured), that took twice or even three times the time as voting online. There was clear support from the British public for online voting and remote working to continue among MPs, with a poll by YouGov showing that 76% of British people thought the arrangements should continue.

Virtual contributions also allowed for a wide range of experts to contribute to Select Committees – including those not based in the UK. Could video-link contributions be kept as an option for MPs in very remote areas, or those with caring needs?

Of course, the Virtual Parliament (actually, hybrid – MPs could still go in) wasn’t perfect. There was more that can be done to ensure that in future, scrutiny is as strong as possible when life-changing decisions are being made every day.

Scrutiny under threat

The pandemic highlighted that there are very few in-built safeguards or protocols for when crises like these come along. Increased powers – such as the emergency coronavirus legislation – should always go hand in hand with increased scrutiny.

However, the latter did not happen: instead, Parliament was adjourned early, and the normal levers of accountability were suspended. A Speaker’s Commission could set out best practice for future scenarios, drawing on Parliament’s experience from this pandemic, and international evidence.

One way of ensuring scrutiny would be to enable the establishment of a rapid-response Select Committee. Alongside a clear plan for remote voting and virtual participation – including giving a cross-party committee determination of how long this should continue – this will prepare Parliament well in the event of future emergencies.

Centralised vs localised

Unfortunately, our governance arrangements are a disaster for public trust – vital at times like these. The United Kingdom represents one of the most highly centralised and undemocratic governments among advanced democracies. Trust in government is dangerously low – no wonder when so many people feel unrepresented.

The crisis has highlighted that many problems are best tackled by the authorities closest to them. That means we should be strengthening all of the non-Westminster levels of government, from the devolved Parliaments to local councils. Such decentralising of power could allow a faster and potentially more robust response to a future crisis like Covid-19.

Analysis of the crisis response from governments across the globe has suggested a pattern: governments that have come across as transparent, accountable and empathetic have performed well. As noted by Prof Kate Maclean in a recent article: “These nations [such as Germany and New Zealand]….have electoral and party-political systems which adopt elements of proportional representation. Such systems frequently give rise to coalition governments and hence necessitate collaborative leadership.”

The recent ‘Democracy in the Age of Pandemic’ report from FairVote UK highlighted several opportunities to counteract these democratic shortcomings, including decentralisation of power, proportional representation and increased public participation in the democratic process.

The ERS has now responded to the Procedure Committee consultation – setting out some key proposals on what we can take forward to bolster scrutiny and democracy at times of crisis. You can read it in full here.

Here’s our five key calls:

  1. Reinstate remote voting for the duration of the pandemic, and consult on making this change permanent for those who need it.
  2. Develop a clear, transparent framework for Parliamentary procedures to prepare for future times of crisis.
  3. Decentralise power across all levels of government, to allow more rapid and dynamic responses to emergencies
  4. Establish Citizens’ Assemblies or Citizens’ Juries that can feed into the government’s crisis response in a transparent manner, improving public trust in decision-making at these crucial times.
  5. Move to a Single Transferable Vote electoral system for the Commons to instil a more pluralistic and collaborative political culture, reducing the threat of ‘elective dictatorship’

How can Parliament best hold the government to account during a crisis? Leave a comment below.

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