Parliament’s got itself into a proper old muddle. Ill thought-through rhetoric about ‘setting an example’ and ‘leading the country’ seems to ignore the fact that we are still telling the people to work from home if they possibly can; and that we have outlawed any grouping of more than six, and even then only in the open air. Meanwhile, apparently we are setting an example by corralling 650 people (plus support staff) travelling from all over Britain in the close confines of an ancient Palace.
In a crazy moment on Tuesday we queued for 45 minutes – the queue stretching a mile or so - to vote physically on doing away with virtual voting. Only MPs who were present in Westminster could vote, thereby disenfranchising the very people who truly need virtual voting- those with medical problems; those unable to leave home; husbands or wives of key workers, or those with small children. So the able bodied voted to stop the disabled and ill from voting. They are obeying the law by staying at home; but now for some perverse reason known only to Jacob Rees-Mogg they are prevented by law from doing their job. So we all get lined up like wallies in a mile long queue, then we wander one by one into the Chamber, watched like a hawk by the Chief Whip to vote for whatever their latest daft ideas may be. Well I didn’t. I voted against. Bang goes my knighthood.
But there is another outrage here. Parliament’s very purpose is to give the Government a hard time; to scrutinise what they are doing; to question their policy announcements; to examine the detail of the Bills which they are trying to get passed. Whether virtual or in person, we are not doing that either. Only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at any one time (25 each side, less a few Liberals and SNP), so perhaps 12 each of Tories and Labour. Two Ministers, a Parliamentary Private Secretary and a whip or two means that there is only room for perhaps 6 backbenchers. I sneaked in on Tuesday but was only able to stay for the prayers which start the day.
Parliament should be a massive ant hill of activity- MPs and peers, staff, journalists, think tanks, lobbyists, pressure groups, visitors, meetings. We swarm around the great palace, briefing, plotting, discussing. Three main chambers and fifty or so committee rooms packed morning noon and night. Up to 10,000 people in any one day rushing around in a never-ending whirl of political activity. And the end result is actually, by and large, pretty good government and legislation.
But this fake Parliament isn’t doing any of that. All we are doing is being trotted out to endorse what the Government are doing and then sent back to our offices to get on with the emails.
The reality is that until the virus has passed, Parliament cannot operate as it should do; and it should therefore stop pretending that it can. We should (reluctantly perhaps) allow a virtual Parliament until such time as we can safely all get back together again. For what we have now is a pale shadow of what it should be; and it’s a dangerous one- because it gives the false impression it’s a real Parliament. It is not. It’s a fake Parliament, a bogus Parliament. It joins a club of fake Parliaments rejoicing in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the Moscow Duma amongst its members.
Parliament cannot do its job properly and it is dangerous to pretend that we are.