Kezia Dugdale: What the public thinks of virtual parliaments

This article first appeared in The Times Red Box on 17 May 2021

The pandemic has been a devastating experience for us all. It has cost well over 125,000 lives in the UK, it has left many more with long-term medical conditions, and it has devastated the businesses and livelihoods of so many more.

Even when it’s over, it will shape our lives for many years to come. If it’s not restrictions on our liberty, it will be the cost of paying down public spending unparalleled since the aftermath of the Second World War.

As much as we all crave “going back to normal” we should be asking ourselves and our leaders if that idea of “normal” was really good enough.

The deep-rooted inequality in our country has deepened during the pandemic. Our social care system was creaking at the seams before COVID. The challenge of climate chaos and the behavioural change required to quell it. In the face of these immense public policy issues, spare a thought for the lockdown legacy politics itself faces.

For over a year now, our politicians have been largely locked down too, voting electronically and beaming themselves into the parliament chambers via video link to ask their questions. When lockdown lifts, normal will return for our parliamentarians too, unless people think it should change and challenge it.

Because it’s not really normal to line up in the “aye” and “no” lobbies of Westminster to cast a vote with your whole body. Hours wasted passing legislation packed together like sardines.

Neither is it normal to demand MSPs travel from Stranraer and Stromness to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to electronically cast a tight budget vote that we now know could be easily done from a distance.

The John Smith Centre exists to make the positive case for politics and public service. Using research, advocacy and development programmes, we also seek to pull doing the barriers people face accessing public life. That’s why we tasked Message House to ask the British public what they think about virtual parliaments and MPs’ ability to do their jobs from a distance.

A total of 51% of respondents believe MPs should continue to be able to debate and vote remotely after COVID restrictions are lifted, with only a third believing MPs should be required to be in Parliament to take part, according to a poll of 2,099 UK adults conducted between May 10 and May 11.

What’s more, 64% of those polled thought that remote voting and debating would help MPs in rural areas or areas a long way from Westminster get more done. And 61% believed that more women and people with caring responsibilities would be encouraged to stand for parliament as a consequence. Women in particular find this argument persuasive.

When asked whether remote voting would mean MPs might be less effective at holding the government to account, the public where largely unsure. Examining the age breakdown the groups most sceptical were those over the age of 65, suggesting they are stronger defenders of tradition. Meanwhile the group least concerned about the impact on accountability are those aged 35 – 54, perhaps the group most likely to have experienced a form of working from home over the past 12 months and also a group most likely to value a better work/life balance.

Across all age groups there is a desire to ensure that this new way of working doesn’t lead to a loss of quality of debate or parliamentary scrutiny, something that will need to be carefully thought through.

Let’s not however confuse quality of debate and scrutiny with the spontaneity and political theatre that we see on our television screens. There’s ample evidence that the public dislike the “Punch and Judy” style of politics. If less of that leads to a more diverse and effective politics, it’s a double win for a healthier politics.

In short, the public are broadly supportive of virtual parliamentary proceedings and remote voting, particularly if it aids rural representation and increases the chances of parliamentarians looking like the country they seek to represent. There’s much work to be done to enhance the effectiveness of parliament’s scrutiny functions, but after the year of innovation we’ve had, making the impossible possible, it’s surely within reach.

Kezia Dugdale is Director of the John Smith Centre at the University of Glasgow. The poll referenced was conducted by Message House on 10 and 11 May of 2,099 UK adults.