Ifan Morgan Jones
Westminster has always been an archaic institution. Some may see this as adherence to historical precedence but it is, in fact, deliberate in order to make the place as unwelcoming as possible.
The architecture gives the game away. It looks like something from medieval Britain but the most recent rebuild was only finished in 1876. To put that in perspective, the first skyscraper was built eight years later.
And we’re about to spend over £4bn minimum to ensure it remains looking as ancient as possible for another few years.
This is because the point of the building, inside and out, is to be forbidding. And that extends to the pointlessly confusing customs within the palace itself.
As the journalist Marie le Conte makes clear in her excellent book Haven’t You Heard?, influence at Westminster depends largely on knowing the right people. As a result the most influential MPs often come from similar, privately-educated backgrounds and knew each other before they arrived.
If you understand all the archaic rules governing how the place works – if you’re in the ‘in’ crowd – you’ll be fine. If you’re an outsider, no one will tell you anything, and you will struggle.
The archaic nature of the institution is reflected in the voting system. While at the modern Welsh and Scottish Parliament you can simply press a button to vote, at Westminster the ‘ayes’ and the ‘nos’ need to scramble into two separate lobbies and be counted on the way out.
It’s time-consuming and quite frankly pointless.
But it became even more bonkers today as MPs voted on Government plans for a socially distanced Westminster Parliament.
This involved abandoning an entirely sensible system that had seen MPs that could not attend voting online and contributing over video screens.
Instead, all 650 MPs now have to queue up for 45 minutes per vote in order to enter the Commons chamber in order to yell their name and ‘aye’ or ‘no’.
As a result, Westminster Hall now looks like a queue at Harry Potter’s Wizarding World – just with no rollercoaster at the end.
It’s a system so daft that Virginia Crosbie, Ynys Môn’s new Conservative MP, at first got it wrong while attempting to vote in favour of it.
House of Commons staff will then have to watch the video back and tick MPs off by hand, which will mean that the result isn’t available for hours.
There is no historical precedent for this – like the building itself it’s deliberately archaic just for the sake of it, to make life as difficult as possible.
It makes things particularly difficult for MPs from Wales and Scotland whose nations are still under stricter lockdown, and those from the peripheral regions of the UK who have further to travel on reduced public transport services.
It also means that MPs who are shielding for health reasons aren’t allowed to vote at all – with their constituents completely disenfranchised.
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg – who like the voting system he has designed seems to have emerged from the 17th century – has decreed that even MPs who have coronavirus will be expected to attend.
There is no danger of other MPs catching the virus, he says, because they will be social distancing.
Between this and the Dominic Cummings fiasco, it’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that it’s a deliberate ruse by the Government to undermine its own lockdown.
Let’s be completely plain about this – it’s ludicrous. Bizarre. Completely mad.
The government has taken a fully functioning digital voting system which took 15 minutes per vote, in which all MPs could participate, and replaced it with a system that requires some MPs from all corners of the UK to travel hundreds of miles to the epicentre of the pandemic, take 45 minutes per vote, and in which only two-thirds of MPs can participate.
The Palace of Westminster was already falling apart but its difficult not to come to the conclusion that the institution is as well.
Let’s not hear another peep from Abolish the Assembly types about the superiority of Westminster after this – the institution has lost its marbles. And this along with the botched coronavirus response it all adds up to an image of a nation-state that just fundamentally doesn’t work anymore.
And why? Because keeping remote voting might just make Westminster that tiny bit more accessible and loosen the grip on power of those who want it to remain a forbidding, confusing fortress in the grasp of the establishment.
But if they carry on like this, it’s not going to be forbidding for much longer – it’s going to be a global laughing stock instead.