One Small Step for Technology, One Giant Leap for the Commons

By Louise Thompson

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow suggested in a speech last week that it “wouldn’t be so heretical” to consider whether Commons votes might in the future be taken with the help of modern technology. Housed in the nineteenth century building is an increasingly techy Parliament and a digitally aware cohort of MPs. In the last few years alone we have seen MPs tweeting directly from the chamber, parliamentary papers delivered to Members’ iPads and speeches given from tablets rather than handwritten notes.  Electronic voting then seems quite a natural progression.

Such a progression would bring some clear advantages. Members currently have 8 minutes to vote and it takes about that time again to get the result. In the long 2010-2012 session that means approximately 145 hours, or 6 per cent, of Commons’ time was taken up with MPs filing through division lobbies and being counted one by one before the result is known. Electronic voting could significantly reduce the time chiseled away during divisions and that time could be put to more productive use scrutinising legislation or bringing more time for backbench debates.

MPs making a conscious decision to abstain from voting on a particular question may also welcome this innovation, if formal abstentions were permitted. Currently there is no formal record of abstentions. If an MP does not vote in either the ‘aye’ or ‘no’ lobby Hansard suggests that they simply weren’t there. Some get over this obstacle by voting in both lobbies so that their name is shown on both sides of the division list. Even the keenest of observers would need to carefully match the names in order to recognise an abstaining MP. Electronic voting then has a secondary benefit for division-watchers. Also Hansard can – and does – get things wrong. MPs may be wrongly recorded as voting for or against a motion, or may simply be missed off the list altogether, when there is potential for human error.

Nevertheless, Members may find that the time taken up by divisions is not wholly lost or redundant.  Rather, it is a valuable opportunity to buttonhole ministers or senior frontbenchers; to press their suit or chase up on a constituency matter in an environment less formal than a scheduled, and minuted, meeting. A junior backbencher may struggle for some time to arrange a meeting with the Chancellor’s busy schedule, but could bump into him on several occasions during divisions on the Finance Bill. This works both ways. Ministers may also appreciate having the chance to connect with – or to get a feel for the mood of – their backbench colleagues. It is an important byproduct of divisions, and whilst not the only place within Westminster in which such informal conversations may take place (the Tea Rooms and Central Lobby being others), it is one of the few regular occasions in which ministers are sure to be available.

Of course there are many questions on this issue that we don’t yet have the answers to. Until the Speaker’s Commission produces its report next year, the full substance of this proposal is an unknown. How for instance, would it work in practice? In his speech the Speaker hinted that MPs would not be able to vote directly from their offices (any such move would beg the question as to whether MPs would need to be in the chamber at all). The physical act of leaving your place, joining your colleagues in passing the party whips as you walk through the division lobbies arguably emphasises the importance – and permanence- of any vote in the Commons.  Voting against your party colleagues takes guts. Any suggestion of X-factor style e-voting would not be steeped in quite the same sense of occasion.

Perhaps most interestingly for academics, would such an innovation affect the rate of rebellions? Phil Cowley and Mark Stuart commented earlier this month that the current Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since 1945. Depending on the final proposals, electronic divisions could make the physical act of voting more personal and less public.  If you didn’t have to face your colleagues and party whips until you had actually done the deed, MPs may feel more confident about casting a rebellious vote.  It may seem like a very minor and uncontentious procedural change to some, but introducing electronic voting in the House could have significant consequences to the culture and behaviour of Members.

Louise Thompson is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey.

Image: Parliamentary copyright images are used with the permission of Parliament.

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