This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.
As part of this work, we are working to solidify our views on where Parliamentary reform would work in a complimentary way with the principles behind our services. This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, discusses how changes to how MPs vote can improve both transparency and the parliamentary working culture.
Improving how MPs vote isn’t just about adopting new technology. The sudden move in the pandemic from MPs physically packing into voting lobbies to voting on their phones felt like catching up with a century of technology all at once. But that period was over quickly and things are now (roughly) back to how they were before.
This is because parliamentary processes also reflect political culture. Thomas Edison proposed an electronic voting system for the US Congress in 1869, but one wasn’t actually implemented for 90 years after that. The technology existed, but that wasn’t enough.
New technologies can change who holds power and threaten how things work. Decisions about technology become wrapped up in fights to preserve or change political culture. When thinking about technological changes, we can’t just approach it as a project of modernisation – we need to have a view on the culture we want to create.
Our view is that when MPs vote, we want processes that create transparency on the votes of individuals, that help create an effective working culture, and are sensitive to the circumstances of representatives’ lives.
These elements are not separate. Both transparency around voting and sensitivity to the lives of representatives are important to creating an effective democratic working culture. The approach needs to balance the fact that MPs are standing in for the rest of us, with the fact that they are also people, and are entitled to decent working conditions like anyone else.
This leads to three recommendations on how the UK Parliament should handle its internal votes:
- The House of Commons should in normal circumstances, defer votes to a standardised voting time (within ‘core hours’), where multiple votes are held in succession.
- These votes should be held through a fast electronic means – whether through terminals, voting pass systems, or apps.
- Current proxy voting schemes should be extended to personal discretion to designate a proxy – e.g. a set number of days a year a proxy vote can be allocated, no questions asked.
In this week’s blog post, I’m going to walk through a bit of the backstory to this thinking, and the benefits of this approach.
Subscribe to our Repowering Democracy: a weekly newsletter on democracy and technology
How votes work now
Currently, when a decision point is reached in a debate, there is a “voice vote” in the room to test if anyone objects. If they do, MPs vote by physically moving into two rooms connected to the debating chamber. Two different systems kick in here – MPs tap their passes on readers to record how they individually voted, while Parliamentary staff count the number of people who entered to report back for the purpose of the vote. This takes quite a long time, and a vote can last around 15 minutes. Part of this includes an eight minute window for MPs to reach the lobbies from elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate.
The current system isn’t pointlessly antiquated and slow, it is antiquated in a way that supports the way power currently works in the Commons. A slower voting process discourages too many votes – which reflects the reality that non-government approved amendments do not win, and MPs aren’t really engaged in a functional process of improving legislation. The lobbies themselves are defended as an opportunity for MPs to talk to ministers, but the influence also works the other way. The lobby system is a physical and intimidating process of sorting that enforces party unity and discourage rebellion. It is a more difficult thing for someone to walk into a room of their enemies, while being shouted at by their friends, than it is to press a button.
Any change from this system has the potential to disrupt how power works, shifting power away from a shared consensus of party leadership (who, regardless of the specific issue, are in favour of MPs doing what parties say) and enabling more individual action by MPs.
Our view is that this broadly would be a good thing – empowering individual MPs and Parliament collectively over the party leaderships would enable a culture closer to what citizens collectively want from MPs. Importantly, it also helps create a better working environment for MPs themselves.
Why we care about the votes of individual MPs
To provide better information through TheyWorkForYou, we need more complete individual voting data. The more formal mechanisms there are to manage absences, the more we can say what an MP’s vote in comparison to their party’s vote means, and produce better information for our users. Giving disclaimers and saying “it’s more complicated than that” is one approach, but it’s better to fix the problem at the source.
Ultimately we think that MPs are responsible for how they vote and that giving more power to MPs helps them keep their promises to us. The growing amount of “rebellions” (where MPs vote against their parties) is assumed (at least in part) to result from TheyWorkForYou making individual voting records more salient. While MPs do not have strong individual mandates, they do have opinions about where leadership is drifting beyond what they said in elections. We think it is more effective for the responsibility of remembering promises to be distributed among a party, rather than seeing an election as endorsement of any and all future decisions of the party leadership.
We’re not blindly pro-rebellions, but we think it’s important to create the space where they’re a real option available to MPs. We want better data, but we also want to give MPs more room to make decisions.
Separating debates from votes
Grouping votes is already the standard working pattern in the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. The Scottish Parliament groups votes into a “decision time” at the end of the day; the Senedd similarly has a “voting time”. Combined with electronic voting systems – these parliaments can handle a number of votes in the time it takes the Westminster commons time to do one vote. This was also a recommendation of Sarah Childs’ Good Parliament Report, and the Fawcett Society’s A House for Everyone.
But is it right to split up debates and votes? The Parliament website says that parliamentary “[d]ebates are designed to assist MPs and Lords to reach an informed decision on a subject. This decision is then often expressed in a vote (called a ‘division’), for or against”. Don’t we want MPs to make decisions following the debate so their votes are informed by the arguments they’ve heard?
The problem is this description is technically true, but fiddly in the details. While debates are an opportunity for individual MPs to talk about principle and specific issues with legislation, when we move to votes, party power asserts itself. MPs who were never part of the debate are summoned by the division bell, and the vote is decided by who holds power in Parliament, rather than strong arguments made in the moment.
Debates and votes are connected indirectly. The best way of describing the process is that parliamentary debates are the visible portion of a wider set of conversations between groups of MPs as well as between government MPs and leadership. These conversations pre-determine the outcome of votes, by finding if there are any areas the government will accept and support amendments on, or to save face, will more quietly accept in the Lords rather than the Commons. It’s not that MPs’ concerns and opinions go nowhere, just that the method they can have impact is indirect. To describe this isn’t to say it’s good, or an ideal way of working, just that it is not important for how the Commons currently works for votes to directly follow the debate they relate to.
The connection between debates and votes is part of a long debate about the role of MPs and technology. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in arguing against remote electronic voting, argued that if MPs didn’t “have the inconvenience of having to be here physically, they don’t necessarily take it as seriously”. This is a less substantial version of Thomas Wakley’s 1839 complaint about having division bells at all – where he found it “most mischievous, that hon. Members should come down there to vote upon a question without having heard one word of the discussion”.
Ultimately, Wakley has lost this argument – but separating out debates and votes, and moving towards a decision time, at the least removes one source of party pressure, and helps build an effective working culture that also has good transparency to the rest of the country.
This decision time should be held within some concept of “core hours” for Parliament – helping most MPs make the voting period within their other responsibilities, personal and professional.
Being sensitive to the lives of MPs
Sometimes MPs can’t make it to Parliament for reasons that are part of the normal human experience. People have children and people get sick. These are things we recognise as important to safeguard in employment law, but there are difficulties for MPs in applying this to MPs who are effectively self-employed, but with obligations to constituents.
The way Parliament currently balances this is through proxy votes – where MPs can, in circumstances like maternity/paternity leave or prolonged sickness, designate another MP to cast a vote on their behalf. Similar mechanisms now operate in the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. In TheyWorkForYou, proxy votes are displayed the same as normal votes, with a note of who the proxy vote was cast by.
The proxy vote system (introduced in 2019) was a result of two factors. The first is a long running trend where TheyWorkForYou (or similar analysis) highlighted individual voting records in a way that did not capture informal mechanisms of managing long absences like pairing – where parties mutually agree a list of absent MPs so the final result is not affected by absences. While in practice the absence is being accounted for, this is happening in a way that is not transparent to the public. In 2018, women MPs argued that TheyWorkForYou metrics were part of a standard where MPs had to work too soon after having children. This more broadly reflects the issue that Parliament and political life are structured in such a way that assumes the model MP is male, and TheyWorkForYou reinforced rather than challenged this.
The second factor was that a breakdown of trust between parties on pairing led to heavily pregnant MPs needing to vote. Informal mechanisms are ultimately dependent on goodwill, something that cannot always be relied on.
Proxy votes were a solution to this. They are formal mechanisms that are guaranteed by Parliament rather than parties. They reflect the reality that often, an MPs vote is the same as all other MPs of that party, and other MPs can easily cast it for them. By creating an explicit way MPs can be absent for sustained periods, the stream of individual data is created that preserves visibility on the impact of MPs, without requiring a daily presence in Westminster.
This system is a good innovation, but it should go further. While circumstances that lead to prolonged absences are explicitly included (and others should be over time), people often need time off work to handle important issues in their lives. Currently, this remains managed through informal pairing approaches. Party managers can give MPs permission to be absent (“slips”), which will then be managed through party channels.
The problem with this informal approach is another area where it gives parties arbitrary power in one aspect of an MP’s life, that can be used to encourage discipline more widely. In 2022, female Conservative MPs argued there was sexism in when slips were and weren’t allowed – with an example of a slip not being given to a mother needing to take a child to hospital, while feeling male colleagues were easily being given permission to go on holiday. In other cases, permission might be denied to punish internal critics. This is not a healthy system – it works for party management, but not for MPs, and doesn’t work transparently for the rest of the country.
The solution to this is to manage “slips” through the same proxy vote mechanism. MPs should be given the equivalent of leave through a set number of times they can designate a proxy for the day, no questions asked. This accomplishes a double goal of removing more absences from the parliamentary record, and reducing another arbitrary way parties can hold power over MPs.
Looking for answers that work for everyone
We believe that transparency in how MPs vote is important. Through our voting records we want to present straightforward summaries of the impact of MPs in Parliament, that inform our users, and encourage focus on significant decisions made in Parliament. From our point of view, the more complete the data, the easier it is to create summaries that accurately reflect underlying realities without long disclaimers. As such, we’re in favour of both making voting easier and parties publishing the instructions they give MPs, to give the public more complete, and easier to understand, information about voting.
At the same time, making voting easier improves the quality of life of MPs. Making voting more predictable, and reasonable absences more possible, fit well as part of a package of changes improving parliamentary life.
While TheyWorkForYou will sometimes make life harder for MPs (and that’s partly the point), in other cases, our frustration at lack of transparency, and MPs’ frustrations at arbitrary and bad working conditions come from the same place: an agreement between party leaderships that power should be centralised. But there are ways of changing that, and we should talk more about it.
Subscribe to Repowering Democracy
Image: Johann Siemens on Unsplash.