Parliament needs a ‘rebrand’ – so it’s going for the digital look
MPs are going to have to take some unexpectedly bold steps if they really want to make the most of the internet.
The Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy's final report, published today, is revolutionary. It wants to introduce online voting by 2020 and let the public have a say in how laws are made. It wants to shake up parliament's archaic language and make it more relevant to ordinary people.
But above all else it wants to reach beyond the internet and find answers to the bigger problem that's bedevilled the Commons and Lords: the disconnect between the public and politicians. What parliament needs, commission member Dr Cristina Leston-Bandeira of the University of Hull told Politics.co.uk, is a "rebrand".
"It's about opening up the institution," she says.
"Parliament should be there for the people. If the people can't see that, there's a crucial issue there. So we want to rebrand parliament to show it's there for you, and not for the government."
Today's blueprint of how to update parliament in the digital age is full of good, sensible ideas that politicians may yet decide they want to run a mile from. They seem like a gamble, but most of these changes will have to happen one way or the other.
Here's the six boldest ideas put forward today.
Electronic voting: We don't have the technology
The big headline ambition from this report is the goal of introducing online voting as soon as 2020.
That, commission members admit, is going to be tricky. Right now they're sceptical the technology exists to protect something as important as the vote from the perils of cyberelectionfraud, or whatever new word we'll have to invent for the inevitable crime that follows.
Still, they want to try, because achieving this might get more young people voting. Five years' time might be a bit rushed – but if it can be done quickly, why hang around?
Letting the public in
Calls to let Joe and Josette Bloggs have more of a say in politics are forgetting something: they already do have a say. It's called the vote.
Under our current system of representative politics, voters are permitted to play a role once every five years and are then expected to let their elected MP get on with the job of politicking on their behalf. It doesn't work very well, whatever uppity backbenchers claim, because the first-past-the-post system means most people aren't represented by someone they backed.
Ignoring this, the next best thing is to find other ways to let the public involved. This might include giving them a voice in the legislative process – probably before it gets all detailed and technical, commissioners think. It might also feature members of the public being allowed to contribute points in debates, and – one day – to even ask questions to the prime minister.
That undermines the whole point of the current system. It is the kind of solution that creates so many unpleasant side-effects the overall situation actually worsens. Far better to reform the voting system for elections so we get a more representative kind of politics. But as the 2011 referendum ruled that out for at least a generation, this kind of option is now being explored as a realistic alternative.
It might make MPs feel better, but it's not going to fix the problem.
So much for the division lobbies
There's another quiet upheaval suggested in this report, too: an end to the very physical nature of the voting process for Commons votes.
Until now a simple rule has prevailed – that an MP can only exercise their right to participate in a Commons vote by actually showing up. It's why besuited middle-aged politicians are so often spotted sprinting their way through the corridors of parliament.
In 1979, when the Callaghan government faced a vote of no confidence, just one more MP would have saved Labour. Sir Alfred Broughton simply couldn't make it, though. He really was too ill – and his absence triggered the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
If the changes now being proposed by the Speaker's Commission become reality, Thatcher would never have got in. What Bercow and co are suggesting is that any MPs which are feeling unwell or have childcare responsibilities should have the option to vote electronically away from the chamber during a division.
That fundamental principle of having to actually be there would be eroded. It's entirely reasonable to make the change – but it does come at a price that shouldn't be ignored.
Chirruping in the chamber
The chirruping of mobile phones, that is. In a direct embracing of this whole internet thing, the Speaker's Commission is now prepared to take the huge step of letting the public use their phones in the Commons chamber.
This is a bold move, given the current strictness of the rules. Visitors are currently made to surrender their mobiles when entering the strangers' gallery, even though there is a glass screen protecting the MPs who they goggle down on. Now the idea is to let them tweet away, even if that means the odd phone won't be on silent. The doorkeepers will have a fit.
Something backbenchers will instinctively shy away from is the possibility of making it easier for the public to work out which of them are not very good at their jobs. This may be why, up until now, there is surprisingly little information made available about the sorts of things they get up to. A 'key performance indicator' (KPI) could change all that.
Commissioners, which considered that idea, are more interested in it than they appear. They know it wouldn't go down well, so are clear they're not embracing it directly. Instead they're trying to sneak it in by the back door.
Releasing lots more data about parliamentarians' activities will allow third-party organisations to come up with KPIs – making us all more aware of who are the real duds in the Commons. For journalists, it sounds like a godsend. For MPs seeking to protect the reputation of parliament after the expenses scandal, it sounds like a big risk.
More mockery, please
MPs have a thick skin, you might say. They can cope with being criticised. Being laughed at, though, is another matter.
This is why, ever since the Commons was first televised in the 1980s, MPs have collectively restricted the footage available to the public. Only a handful of broadcasters can actually afford the eye-wateringly high fees they demand. They want to know their material will only be used for serious, and not satirical, purposes.
It's a problematic rule which the internet has slowly exposed as being unsustainable. Right now, Politics.co.uk can't stump up the hundreds of pounds required every time we want to show you an MP's speech, or an especially exciting exchange in the Commons chamber. But the commissioner thinks we and other sites like us should be able to. In fact, it wants a liberalising of the rules.
This has to be the right thing to do, but it is obviously risky for MPs fearful of being ridiculed. They should realise continuing to restrict and clampdown where they should liberalise and open up is the only choice they have.
That applies to all the above, actually. These changes are bold. And they have to happen sooner or later. Still, doing them in a kneejerk way might prove counterproductive. It will take real courage to commit to these reforms – and courage is a word politicians shy away from.