Modernising parliament for equality

Modernising parliament for equality

Modernising parliament for equality

by Pamela Ritchie 

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As MPs return to work today, many will be getting their heads around what their job looks like in a world where social distancing and remote working are the new normal.

Discussions are currently underway on a new hybrid parliament in which just 50 MPs will be allowed in the Commons chamber at any one time, with everyone else joining online. But a trial run in the Lords last week suggests MPs may be in for a bumpy ride - technical difficulties left the key speaker unable to join the meeting, which crashed after just 17 minutes. 

This probably sounds familiar to anyone who has spent the past month adjusting to a brave new world of endless Zoom calls, and I have every sympathy for the Speaker’s team as they attempt to transition. 

But initial proposals to manage the mayhem could have serious implications for our democracy. For one thing, suggestions that only pre-selected MPs will be able to ask questions should ring alarm bells for those of us who have watched the daily press releases and seen journalists, limited to one question and a follow-up, struggle to hold the government to account. Meanwhile, the biggest unanswered question is how exactly voting will take place. 

As is so often the case, though, these big questions also represent big opportunities.

Around the globe, other democracies are finding exciting new ways to work. In New Zealand, a Coronavirus Committee of cross-party MPs has been established and is working well, enabling detailed scrutiny before proposals are put to the Commons and ensuring that much-needed legislation can be passed quickly. A similar approach is underway in Norway, where their proportional voting system means they are already well-versed in collaborating and compromising in the best interests of their country. These models could provide valuable examples to our own parliament, where our combative, first-past-the-post approach to politics encourages polarisation more than cooperation.

For years now, many parties and politicians - including the Women’s Equality Party - have been calling for a proportional voting system, more cross-party collaboration and a revamping of our outdated political culture, which currently excludes women and minorities from proper representation. With lockdown as a catalyst, we now have a real opportunity to reimagine what our politics could look like and how it could work.

There have been calls for a ‘sunset clause’ to ensure that any measures agreed on during lockdown will only apply temporarily. But I hope this opportunity to make our parliament more accessible and resilient for the future isn’t wasted. If a remote voting system works during lockdown, why can’t it work when the restrictions are lifted?

Imagine if MPs didn’t have to spend four days in Westminster every week. Imagine the savings in travel and accommodation expenses. The benefits to the environment. The opportunities as more regional (and fully accessible) offices opened, creating jobs and bringing politics home to the people. The increased accessibility to those who are pregnant, ill, disabled or have caring responsibilities. 

A remote parliament would introduce the possibility of more family-friendly working hours, opening politics up to the many women currently put off by the prospect of long days away from home. It could also be the start of real devolution as MPs spent more time in their constituencies, being scrutinised by local media and truly available for the constituents they represent.

Sectors across the country are currently looking at ways to adapt and survive this pandemic. Lets see Westminster show real leadership in how this can be done, making our political culture stronger, healthier, more accessible and more equal in the process.

 

Pamela Ritchie is a Women's Equality Party GLA 2021 candidate and the party's Movement Builder for Equal Representation 

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