By Richard Heller
The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has appointed a special commission to turn our country into a digital democracy. He did not improve his case by calling for a 'Parliament version 2.0', a silly geeky cliché which makes normally calm and reasonable listeners reach for their revolvers.
To deepen the gloom caused by his initiative he promised his new commission would take evidence from high-profile technology firms. Having made such a wonderful success of outsourcing our public services, these firms will now be able to lobby for the outsourcing of our democracy.
Mr Bercow might be right to think that digital technology might invigorate the political system – but it is none of his business to bring this into being. He is paid to do two jobs, keeping order in the House and protecting its rights from an over-mighty executive. In fairness to him, he has made a good fist of the second task. During his tenure, the government's control over the House has weakened and backbenchers have been given more opportunities to hold it to account. More of them get called at prime minister's questions than before, or have urgent questions accepted. Select committees have acquired a little more independence and authority and after centuries of effort the House now has a backbench business committee.
Mr Bercow should build on this work and leave a legacy which will survive the end of coalition government and give backbenchers enduring influence when the House falls back into the control of a single party.
Appointing a commission to reinvent parliament is a folie de grandeur. Mr Bercow may have been influenced by the precedent of Speaker's conferences on voting reform and parliamentary representation. There have been six of these in the last hundred years: the first, and most important, was in 1916, under the former Conservative, John Lowther, which prepared the path for votes for women over 30.
However, none of the Speakers concerned acted on their own initiative. Mr Bercow knows this well, since he took over the chair of the ongoing Speaker's conference (primarily on the representation of women and ethnic minorities) from his predecessor Michael Martin. Speaker's Conferences were appointed by the government of the day, with agreement from the major opposition party or parties in parliament, to reflect the convention that major reforms in parliamentary representation are framed in an all-party forum of elected MPs with a neutral chair. This method has not always generated agreement, but it should not be lightly abandoned. Its great merit is to force all the major parties to take responsibility for the future of parliamentary democracy. It is a better system than leaving this to the caprice of the Speaker of the day.
Mr Bercow announced his initiative to the Hansard Society in ebullient terms but much of the detail remained obscure. Will it take in reform of the House of Lords (yet again)? Presumably so: the Lords are part of Parliament 1.0, and if they survive as a second chamber they will have to be part of the exciting Version 2.0. Will it take in voting in referendums? What about devolved parliaments and local government and the European parliament, and elections for mayors? Will it take a long overdue look at the special governance of the City of London? Will the commission be expected to make voters interested in elections for police commissioners?
Who will be the members, will people be able to volunteer, how will they be selected, will they get any expenses, and will they need to travel to observe exciting new forms of democracy overseas? If so, I would be glad to report on the vibrant political process in São Tomé e Príncipe, the beautiful Atlantic archipelago which hangs from the Equator like a set of brightly coloured jewels. It has a devolved assembly, for Príncipe island, with the smallest electorate in the world: around 4,000.
Whether or not the commissioners conduct such essential fact-finding, who is paying for their labours?
Mr Bercow gave fair warning that they would look into online voting. This is an extraordinarily bad idea, even worse that the extension of postal voting on demand. It is even more vulnerable to fraud, and like postal voting it destroys the guarantee of the secret ballot – a cornerstone of all effective democracies and one achieved in our country in 1872 after years of hard campaigning. Online voting, even more than postal voting, destroys the special character of taking part in the electoral process. It makes choosing a government no different from sending a tweet.
Online voting also of course destroys the principle of voting by locality – the foundation of our parliamentary system. Traditional voting reminds electors that they are choosing a representative for their community. They go to a public place in their neighbourhood, and for most of them, especially in inner city constituencies, voting may be their only cause to visit their local school or community centre. Before voting, they can expect to receive some kind of communication on behalf of parties and candidates, from other local people, whom they might never know otherwise.
Online voting removes any direct connection between a voter and his or her neighbourhood. Once no-one needs to vote locally then no one needs to campaign locally either. Local parties with real people will wither away at a faster pace. In their place, voters will have to endure even more fatuous communications by politicians on social media, ever more empty of content and thought, ever more full of false friendship and spurious empathy.
Besides establishing some sense of identity, voting by locality also reinforces the principle of equality. Subject to the vagaries of constituency size, it gives each vote equal weight: the duke's vote is worth no more than the dustman's. The constituency system combined with first-past-the-post voting brings other problems and grievances in its train, especially the issue of 'wasted votes' in safe seats. But it does ensure that no particular class of voter gets more representation in the political process than any other.
Mr Bercow's commission could throw that principle away. He seemed quite happy about this, telling the Hansard Society that digital democracy could allow "multiple concepts of what is a constituency".
That would open up a Pandora's Box of Trojan horses. Within living memory, our system had separate constituencies for university graduates. Do we want them back again? And how about restoring the business vote, a cause promoted by Lord (Digby) Jones, former minister and CBI director-general? There would be inevitable demands for representation by gender, by ethnicity, by sexual orientation, for pensioners, for unemployed people, and by faith group. Any special interest group could press a claim for representation as a constituency. Bird-lovers might want their own MP – and why not since the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has many more members than all the political parties combined?
The resulting parliament would be fractious and fragmented, unwieldy and unequal. It would be full of people with a direct motive for maintaining social divisions in our country so that they could go on being paid to represent the groups which elected them.
If that is Mr Bercow’s Version 2.0, I am heading for Version 1.0 in São Tomé e Príncipe.
Richard Heller was formerly political adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has been a professional speechwriter for over thirty years and is the author of standard manual High Impact Speeches (published by Prentice Hall Business).
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