Since Parliamentary democracy has been televised live, I’ve got used to watching how the House of Commons debate and vote on issues, and the sheer anachronistic physicality of it all never ceases to amaze me. In a modern world where we can all use technology to assist us in simplifying so many labourious or repetitive daily tasks, we still rely in Parliament on people – on our politicians – actually getting up and voting with their feet.
After an issue has been thoroughly debated – usually quite vociferously – in the Chamber, the Speaker of the House asks for the Members of Parliament sitting in the House to vote ‘aye’ or ‘no’ on the matter. And if there is no clear difference in the decibel level between the two, the Speaker shouts ‘Division!’ and the whole Chamber clears to allow individuals to pass through one of two lobbies to cast their vote.
The Division Bell rings, and not only those present in the chamber but all MPs present in the building will drop whatever they are doing to rush to the particular lobby of their choice to vote. If they are not present, they do not get to vote, and some MPs actively choose to abstain from voting (for whatever reason). Obviously the bigger the issue (like with the current Brexit votes) the more MPs are present for each vote, and as each motion requires the same procedure, with votes often occurring one after the other in straight succession, there can be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and milling around waiting.
Once the MPs have voted, everyone returns to the Chamber awaiting the result, where after the votes are physically count one of the four ‘tellers’ of the House stand at the front and read out the total numbers of ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ for that vote. The Speaker of the House then repeats these out loud for the benefit of everyone, and states whether the ‘ayes’ or the ‘noes’ have it, before the results are formally recorded for posterity.
I suppose as well as tradition, there are very good reasons for having one vote for one MP in person – there can be no confusion, no obfuscation, and an indisputable transparency of process that cannot be hijacked or fiddled about with. We all know – and often see – how each MP votes on each motion, and who defies the Whip (and sometimes even resigns their Cabinet post) to vote with their concsience rather than along party lines.
And as we currently have a political party Government in power without a majority of MPs to necessarily vote in their favour, these individual votes have a far greater signifiance than when a party is in Government with a clear majority across the House. There is often no foregone conclusion, and so the actual voting procedure is no longer just a basic formality of Parliamentary process.
The fact of the Government having to rely on every individual vote makes it all the more uncertain as to the result of each motion, which may be proving exteremely frustrating for Theresa May at the moment but is democratically just for the country as a whole. The country seems to be as divided now on the question of Brexit as it was three years ago, and this division is inevitably showing within the House of Commons too.
To the rest of the world it looks bad, laughable and incompetent even, but the current Parliamentary stalemate over Brexit is nevertheless giving an accurate political reflection of where we all are right now as a country – a thoroughly disunited kingdom – so whether we like it or not, it shows us all clearly that our democractic process is actually working…