Within hours of victory, new Labour leader Keir Starmer had vowed to work with Boris Johnson ‘in the national interest’ to tackle the mounting coronavirus crisis – following a letter from the PM urging opposition leaders to ‘work together’ during the outbreak.
The government have recognised the need for strong scrutiny and cooperation from the opposition on the response to COVID-19, with Gove issuing a charm offensive to journalists last week.
All sides recognise this: with new emergency powers comes new risks. From the off, Mr Starmer will have to both cooperate while using his skills of cross-examination to ensure they aren’t abused. Each day – during recess – life-changing decisions are being made. With Parliament unable to meet, that means opposition parties must innovate.
There is no contradiction here: combining working together alongside in-depth scrutiny is the norm in most advanced democracies. But in the UK, for this to happenParliament must modernise fast. The days before recess saw MP numbers rightly plummet, as it was unsafe to attend. Yet at first, authorities continued as if nothing was happening: allowing voter representation to fall away while decisions were ‘nodded through’ without a vote. But the Parliamentary authorities are rightly changing tack as everyone realises the gravity of the situation.
While it is still unclear when parliament will sit again – a decision (typically) in the hands of only the government – those on opposition benches must closely monitor the situation, ready to call for Parliament to return early if necessary.
There is the risk that, as one writer noted in the FT this week: “The government, which is bound to make mistakes in these most difficult times, is not being scrutinised or tested. In this crisis, the centre of British democracy is missing in action.”
Former Commons clerk David Natzler recently set out just what was needed to implement a ‘virtual parliament’ in Westminster – and Labour would do well to draw on its findings.
One idea is for opposition parties to lead the way in convening a cross-party Coronavirus Response Select Committee to meet digitally during recess. We could follow the cross-party model used in New Zealand, where MPs there are grilling ministers and officials severally times a week over video-link.
The Commons’ rules have already been changed to allow Select Committees to meet digitally during recess, and it seems to be working well. Now we just need the will to drag MPs into a dedicated covid crisis group: something that will take quick leadership.
There’s other cause for hope. The Speaker has confirmed that plans are in place to deliver a ‘virtual parliament’ after the Easter recess – with MPs calling in remotely to debate and deliberate.
In Wales, we’re already seeing the fruits of democratic innovation. The Labour-Lib Dem administration has backed the first live-broadcast ‘virtual Senedd’ this Wednesday, allowing AMs to remotely meet and conduct assembly business. It is now up to Westminster to follow their lead.
If MPs cannot meet in person after recess, MPs must be able to debate and vote remotely from isolation. Labour could lead the way on this: working up proposals with other parties for how to drag Parliament into the 21st century at this urgent hour.
The reality is that, under Westminster’s warped set-up, we have a government who have been handed a large majority on a minority of the vote. All the proposed changes to bolster scrutiny are only temporary – and it will take more than technology to deliver the real democracy we need in parliament. But we have to start here and now, to fill the vacuum of scrutiny.
Right now, voters risk being silenced altogether if parties do not agree on steps towards a virtual Parliament. As David Natzler noted: “This would require government assent and cross-party support, and in particular the agreement of the new Leader of the Opposition. But if the government is willing to co-operate, there is at least a real prospect of virtual Commons chamber proceedings sometime soon.”
This health crisis mustn’t be allowed to exacerbate Britain’s democratic crisis. Now more than ever, we need to drag our creaking institutions into the modern age.
This piece was first published on LabourList after the election of Keir Starmer as leader.