Is it time for electronic voting at Westminster?

Posted On: 
2nd July 2015

Would e-voting drag Parliament into the 21st century – or signal the death of the Commons community? The House puts two MPs through its own division lobby 

The Commons is a bullying, braying, inefficient anachronism sorely in need of updating, says Natalie McGarry 

While Westminster agonises about the crumbling building which houses British democracy, there is little consideration of the creaking, outmoded and anachronistic practices that govern every aspect of the practical application of representation in that place.

I was delivered – with my 55 colleagues from the SNP – on a wave of optimism and an expectation that we would bring a new openness and transparency to public office. But for too many, public office has come to mean an extension of public school. Most of us grew out of rambunctious and disruptive behaviours by primary school – but for some, the chamber is more akin to a playground.

Unfortunately, the House of Commons’ reluctance to change is a large part of the reason the wider public finds Parliamentary proceedings alien and remote. The conduct in the Commons – were it replicated in normal public life – would result in ridicule and disgrace. It is difficult to conceive of a workplace in the country that would tolerate employees acting like pre-pubescent boys. Bullying and braying are just not cricket. Voters look in askance at the rituals that have developed, and most turn their backs on the entire performance.

So while talk turns to the solum of the House of Commons, perhaps we should talk more of the fabric, the constitution, and those ridiculous conventions. If we are honest about attracting more women, more representative voices from ethnic minorities, the young and the working class, we have to look to ourselves, and the alienation of Parliament from the people we claim to represent. Frankly, we need to get over the attitude that “this is the way we have always done it”, and open our eyes.

One such anachronism is trooping through the lobbies to vote. The key role of MPs is to represent our constituents, but the needless wasting of time as we queue to have our names ticked off a paper list is patently absurd. The slate of business in the House is onerous, but we could get through even more if Parliament would accept that we live in the 21st century, not the 12th. Electronic voting isn’t even 21st century technology.

It seems ludicrous that Glasgow Subway can operate a smartcard system involving thousands of commuters and tens of thousands of journeys every day, but Parliament cannot. Even more so when you look at procedure in the Scottish Parliament, where votes take just a couple of minutes, with results available instantaneously and where business at Decision Time is conducted efficiently and with no loss of transparency and accountability.

There are plenty of ways to make voting secure to ensure the sanctity of process while improving time and accuracy efficiency, but there is far too much settling down in this Parliament. Eager new MPs are smacked down by convention and the need to conform. Tradition is the quicksand of ideals and ideas.

Working in a building constructed for the past doesn’t mean we should ape it in behaviour. It’s time to consign the idiosyncrasies to the history books and create a modern Parliament fit for a modern democracy.

Natalie McGarry is SNP MP for Glasgow East 

Electronic voting would risk MPs losing connection with the chamber – and each other, argues Sir Alan Duncan​

Electronic voting would be totally unworkable and entirely unsuitable to the House of Commons.

Members of Parliament vote in person, passing through the ‘Aye’ or the ‘No’ lobby on either side of the chamber, and are ticked off by the tellers for either side. For this reason, it is called a division, because the House literally divides in two different directions on an issue. It makes you decide: yes or no. An MP can only vote in person, never by proxy and never remotely.

This ensures they are identifiable and so, therefore, is their vote. Electronic voting would remove this certainty.

Many legislatures, such as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, vote electronically. But the design of those chambers is fundamentally different from the House of Commons. Members sit at an individual desk or seat from which they can cast their vote immediately and identifiably.

This is impossible in the House of Commons because it is made up of benches, not individual seats from which a Member could cast a vote in the same way as in Holyrood or Brussels. The common model of electronic voting, therefore, is unworkable without a total – and totally undesirable – restructuring of the Commons

The only option for those who advocate electronic voting would be to let MPs vote remotely, by a toggle or app. Yet even this is not workable. From what range could they vote? Anywhere on the Parliamentary estate? A mile away? From their constituency? From overseas? If you allow MPs to vote remotely, you lose the ability to verify their vote. How can you be sure who is casting the vote without visual identification?

Even if a technical solution could be found, it would still be undesirable, destroying the community of politics in Parliament and leaving us with a dead chamber. The division lobbies allow conversations to take place, where an MP can flag a constituency case with a Minister or just interact with colleagues. The sense of community in Parliament has sadly been in decline for years; allowing MPs to absent themselves from the division lobbies – and from each other – would accelerate this trend.

We all accept that voting in person takes time. This can be frustrating if a series of votes disrupts meetings or leaves MPs with offices on the other side of the estate rushing to the division lobbies before the doors are shut. But it is a price worth paying. Not just because it guarantees identification, but because it ensures we do not lose the connection with the chamber and each other.

Proponents of electronic voting use it as shorthand to argue for wholesale changes to the conventions and practices of a chamber they do not fully appreciate or understand.

The Commons is not – and should not – be set in aspic. It evolves to reflect technological change. The chamber has been televised since 1989 and has just installed a number of new cameras to provide different angles that give a much better impression of what is going on. It has made the shift from paper to digital – delivering the Order Paper and Hansard through iPad apps rather than in hard copy to Members’ offices each morning, and allowing the limited use of phones and tablets in the chamber.

We should be open to such evolution, and not conserve just for the sake of it. Yet the majority of the traditions and conventions covering how the Commons behaves exist for a reason. The problem with those who advocate electronic voting is that all they see is the tradition, not the reason.

Sir Alan Duncan is Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton