They’re Calling It the ‘Conga Line Parliament’

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LONDON — The line of lawmakers waiting to vote stretched around an ancient hall, out through a cobbled courtyard and along an underground passage before snaking around an atrium to the cafeteria — all told, it was over half a mile in length.

On Tuesday, the joke was that Britain’s Parliament was a bit like Disneyland, but without the fun.

At the insistence of their government, lawmakers returned from a short vacation to find themselves obeying pre-pandemic rules that, in line with traditions that reach back centuries, require voting in person.

With the added burden of social distancing rules, however, lawmakers standing in what was being called the “conga line Parliament” waited, with varying degrees of impatience, to play their part in the democratic process.

For some, this was a welcome, if inconvenient, return to the time-honored ways of a Parliament that survived a devastating fire in the 19th century and the bombs of the Luftwaffe in World War II.

To others, it was an incomprehensible decision to prevent lawmakers from using modern technology to vote remotely, as they had been doing during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s an absolute disgrace, a total shambles,” said Ben Bradshaw, a Labour lawmaker, as he waited in line, adding that some of his colleagues had almost been crushed as they navigated an escalator.

Another lawmaker took a more philosophical approach, despite a wait of around 40 minutes. “At least I’m now in the queue,” said John Healey, from the Labour Party, using the British word for a line, “rather than the queue for the queue.”

Yet here, of all places, the rules are the rules, and on Tuesday those who tried to force the authorities to continue with digital voting were confronted by the awkward fact that they had to vote for it, in person.

Then, to make matters worse, they lost.

ImageLawmakers returned on Tuesday to find themselves obeying pre-pandemic rules that require voting in person.
Credit…Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/EPA, via Shutterstock

The episode was particularly galling for those lawmakers who are among the two million Britons deemed most vulnerable to Covid-19 because of their age or pre-existing conditions. Those groups have been instructed to stay home almost all the time, and until Tuesday, the lawmakers among them could still do their jobs, debating and voting digitally.

“There will probably be a couple of hundred M.P.s who won’t be able to vote,” said Robert Halfon, a Conservative, referring to the 650 members of Parliament. Mr. Halfon is among those lawmakers.

The government led by his party leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “was snipping away against the democratic rights of M.P.s, turning us all into parliamentary eunuchs, and part of this is because of a kind of He-Man, Tarzan-like mentality,” Mr. Halfon told the BBC.

In a minor concession, the government has said that it would allow those medically unable to attend to contribute digitally to parliamentary procedures, but not to vote.

Instead, the government said, they could seek an agreement to stay away with a lawmaker from an opposing party, effectively canceling each other’s vote.

But that has left many angry, particularly lawmakers from areas far from London who worry that they risk spreading the virus by traveling the length of the country. Their fears are not ill-founded, because before strict social distancing rules were put in place, Parliament was the site of an early outbreak of Covid-19, the disease that is caused by the virus.

“This is ridiculous when we have an app developed to do the job,” Catherine McKinnell, an opposition Labour lawmaker, fumed on Twitter. “What is the Government so afraid of that they will risk spreading a deadly virus over allowing Members of Parliament to vote online?”

There are also worries that if lawmakers from Scotland, for example, feel unable to attend, that could weaken democratic accountability, with negative consequences for the unity of the nation.

What makes the turn of events more surprising is that Parliament had been operating a surprisingly smooth “hybrid” system with no more than 50 lawmakers in the compact House of Commons at a time, and others calling in from home via Zoom.

Image

Credit…Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Voting, too, had taken place electronically for the first time in the history of Parliament. This also seemed to work, even if on one occasion the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, accidentally voted remotely the wrong way.

“The risk is that this turns Parliament from a global leader in adapting to the pandemic into an international laughingstock,” said Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard society, a research organization focused on Parliament. Insisting on physical voting, she added, could mean that the votes would take as long as the debates.

Some have speculated that the hostility toward a virtual Parliament comes from Mr. Johnson, who has looked uncomfortable during Prime Minister’s Questions, his weekly duel with the new leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer.

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With a maximum of 50 lawmakers allowed in the chamber at a time, and none of the usual cheering on display, it has become an exchange more suited to the forensic courtroom skills of Mr. Starmer, a former lawyer, than the bombastic prime minister.

But since that restriction on numbers in the chamber will remain, it seems unlikely that the noise level will rise.

Ms. Fox believes that the real motivation is the government’s desire to maintain discipline among its lawmakers, something that is much harder when they are spread around the country. Government business managers may also hope that opposition lawmakers will be less inclined to amend government bills because of the time each vote will take.

At the center of the furor is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, and a man who has built a whole career on cultivating a self-consciously old-fashioned demeanor.

During the peak of the pandemic he agreed to remote working, but has since pressed for a resumption of business as usual, arguing that the digital Parliament is less effective than the real thing.

On Tuesday, Mr. Rees-Mogg told Parliament that many people were going back to work and that lawmakers “have a role as leaders” to do the same, glossing over the fact that official government advice is that those who can work from home should continue to do so.

Voting in Parliament should not be done “quietly and secretly,” he said, before noting that “some people tweeted that they were doing it while going for a walk and things like that.”

“Is that really the way to be voting on laws?” he asked.

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