Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Democracy and the Pandemic

Prof Dr Melanie Sully UK Parliamentarism and the Pandemic

The Corona Virus which dominated the news in 2020 was a challenge for lawmakers everywhere. Whilst “speed kills” were once regarded with sceptism and as shifting too much power to governments, it was clear that the virus too was a killer that had to be contained.

Speed was of the essence and time for parliamentary control or public consultations went by the board. Emergency legislation was fast tracked in a desperate effort to stem the spread of the virus and whilst to start with, the public went along with this as time went on critics impatiently warned of the dangers for democracy.

London Under Siege

The United Kingdom was especially hit by the killer virus and the reasons for the huge death toll have yet to be investigated. Doubtless it has left a country more unsure and despondent than even during the endless Brexit debates.

At the end of January 2020 Britain finally left the European Union after years of bruising conflict and political crises. One might have been be forgiven for looking to a brighter future. For sure the details of the relationship with the EU had yet to be negotiated but that was considered largely technical and a job for economists and “experts”.

It soon became clear though that the brighter future would be drowned out by the virus and the Brexit experts disappeared replaced by virologists with daily statistics and bulletins painting an ever increasing depressing picture of human tragedy and loss of life.

A swathe of legislation was passed in record time to respond to the emergency. Elections scheduled for the post of London Mayor and local elections were postponed for a year. Those elected next year though will serve for 12 months less than usual. A Corona Virus Act went through parliament in just three days consisting of hundreds of pages albeit with regular half yearly reviews to see if the measures are still justified. The Government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not use the Civil Contingencies Act which could have been amended in an emergency but instead chose the Public Health Act and other laws which could be passed with less parliamentary obstacles.

It soon became clear that the Virus was striking at the very heart of the UK’s power centres. The heir to the throne, Prince Charles, contacted COVID-19, the elderly Monarch was protected from continuing public engagements and parliamentarians and Ministers started to fall ill with symptoms of the virus. Soon after the Monarch had made an unusual televised address to the Nation and Commonwealth, the bombshell news of the illness of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, broke. At first it was played down by the spin doctors but Johnson’s own videos showed a different story. A Prime Minister once so ebullient was pale and gasping for breath. Soon he was moved to the intensive care unit where most knew 48 hours would be decisive between life and death. The arrangements for deputising for an incapacitated Prime Minister had already been made and are written down in government handbooks. What would happen in the event of the demise of the Prime Minister of the day was not so clear and the subject of much speculation. After a touch and go experience the Prime Minister returned from death’s door to the traditional black door of No 10 Downing Street. But he was visibly shaken and weakened. His audiences with the Queen took place by telephone and his skirmishes in parliament with the new leader of the Opposition, Labour’s Keir Starmer, were an embarrassment to watch as Johnson struggled to coherently answer precise, clear questions.

The death toll continued to rise and questions were asked about the advice given to the government. Press briefings with journalists seemed to replace question and answer sessions in parliament. The guidance on the Lockdown was muddled. And then Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was found to have breached lockdown rules over Easter and went on an apparent stroll in a picturesque part of North England on his wife’s birthday. He pleaded that the excursion was to test his eyesight to see if he could drive back to London safely. At this point any shred of trust the government had enjoyed from the public evaporated. And even more threatening for Johnson, the support and admiration he had from the newly elected Members of Parliament who had been elected for the Conservatives, disappeared. From now on they would question every false move and policy statement. Laws passed carry weight only by virtue of the fact that they are recognised by citizens and obeyed. When those responsible for drafting laws fail to abide by the legal framework then the efficacy of government is impaired.

Corona and Westminster

Another challenge for the political system was how to arrange parliamentary business. Social distancing rules in the archaic Westminster buildings were impossible to observe. Cramped rooms and narrow corridors where voting took place not to mention the small but intimate plenary chamber necessitated a quick rethink by the parliamentary authorities. Around 150 of the 650 lawmakers in the House of Commons could be regarded as in a risk category either by virtue of age or existing illnesses. Jeremy Corbyn former leader of the Labour Party is over 70 and Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor as Prime Minister suffers from diabetes. They were seen nonetheless in the Chamber which had new rules and a limit of 50 physically present at any one time. The decision on access was accorded the Parliament President (Speaker) who had to take account of a balance of views and representation of regions in making a selection. He regularly consulted with the leadership of the three main parties meaning that others were excluded from the process. A further 120 Members of Parliament took part in proceedings by Zoom which had been cleared by the National Cyber Security Centre as safe to operate. Members could participate after taking part in a draw to see which names could go forward. For the most part in plenary debates there were never more than 100 MPs at any one time before the crisis. As in the Chamber in normal times a dress code was accepted also for those virtually participating. The virtual participation in parliamentary debates was especially attractive for those representing constituencies far away from London, for example in remote areas of Scotland. This could become a long term feature once the crisis has subsided. Virtual participation is regarded as a “parliamentary proceeding” and accordingly lawmakers enjoyed continued immunity for their work.

The next hurdle however soon presented itself since some legislation would require voting on. The number of Bills requiring a vote was kept to a minimum but could not be totally avoided. Again the answer was to go digital and thanks to the parliamentary staff who worked non-stop a MembersHub was set up to allow lawmakers to vote online with maximum security. A system was devised akin to online banking logins. Votes in the House of Commons are recorded publically and afterwards citizens can see which way their representative voted. This system was maintained in the virtual voting and a V (Virtual) written alongside a Member who had voted online. The first historic virtual vote took place in May and despite some hitches went off smoothly. This again could become an established feature once the crisis is over. It would mean an MP would have less reason to miss a vote altogether and could also increase the expectation of citizens that the lawmaker would be more visible in his or her electoral district.

The next stage was the development of proxy voting which had already existed to allow those on parental leave to nominate another MP to cast their vote for them. The procedure had to be agreed to by the Speaker. Over a hundred Members took advantage of this option with most of them delegating their vote to the party managers which again raised questions on the democratic nature of the process.

Committee work of parliament also functioned largely remotely but this had been well developed and presented less of a challenge.

The Government was keen to get MPs physically back to London and was sceptical of the virtual alternative arrangements. For one it was considered Johnson was at a disadvantage in the debates since he depended on the vociferous support of his own team. He visibly struggled in a near empty chamber with his pendant the Labour leader, a lawyer by training. The plenary had taken on the atmosphere of a court room which was alien to the exuberant Johnson. Also the government was trying to encourage people to go back to work after a long lockdown with negative consequences for the economy. The spectacle of MPs comfortably working at home and voting online possibly whilst on a shopping expedition or the like did not fit into the messaging. In addition the usual bargaining in the corridors of power, the pressure the party machine could exercise over Members to vote a certain way was absent with remote voting. Often dissident Members formed WhatsApp groups and could communicate independent of the party to plan their counter strategies.

Other parliaments too had to adapt to the Virus such as Brazil hard hit by Corona where Zoom substituted physical presence in the plenary. Spain also suffering from the widespread effects of the Virus had long allowed remote voting and had devised an App for the purpose. Countries like Ireland moved the plenary to bigger buildings to allow for physical distancing. In New Zealand an Epidemic Committee worked remotely to consider government legislation. In most parliaments the public gallery was closed early on in the epidemic.

Whilst parliaments responded differently they all nonetheless faced the challenge of ensuring effective communication with voters and the Opposition parties. On the positive side the new arrangements may go some way in the future to modernise the legislative process in a digital democracy fitting for the twenty first century.