Thursday 8 April 2010

Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry...

It's almost laughable that it took two evenings of BBC Parliament coverage to get Matron out of her work-induced hibernation. But having watched the whole sorry spectacle of the "committee stage" of the Digital Economy Bill last night she is not sure who she despises more: the (many) MPs who did not turn up at all or the ones who allowed themselves to be herded in from the pub like cattle for the final division by a defunct, decrepit government.

For those who do not know yet, the Digital Economy Bill, a most complex piece of legislation which even highly specialised experts in the field of law and IT have difficulty to understand in its entirety, was rushed through Parliament last night in a dubious process called "Wash-up" and approved in third reading by 189 to 47 votes. During the entire debate, both last night and the night before, the number of MPs present in the Chamber never seemed to veer above 40 when suddenly, around 10.30 pm, it seemed to be kick-out time in the neighbouring, alcohol-serving establishments and hordes of people streamed into the hallowed halls, laughing, joking and generally seeming to enjoy what may very well have been the last time they all got together in this format. Then they locked the doors and the backroom deal negotiated between the front benches of the two biggest parties became enshrined in Hansard history.

The problems with this Bill have been described in mind-boggling detail by brains more engaged with the subject matter that Matron's (for some of the best coverage, see the blog of the formidable Pangloss), but now that another battle against a Parliament which acts in blatant disregard of its constituency - safe in the knowledge that the constitutional concept of parliamentary supremacy (combined with modern party discipline, money-saturated lobbyists and procedural tools such as Standing Order 14) gives the governing party the right to do almost anything for as long as they are in power - it is time for the both the electorate and the elected to learn some uncomfortable lessons.

Riddle me this, dear political representative, if the signature of 23 "business leaders" on an open letter requesting the scrapping of a national insurance increase is enough to get all parties putting out endless press releases, why do 20,000 letters written by ordinary citizens to their MP about the risks and dangers of unpopular piece of legislation not have the same effect?

A look at the division list of shame should be compulsory for every media journalist and some names deserve to be mentioned in particular:

Derek Wyatt, LAB, who should know better having chaired the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group for years and who was instrumental in setting up the Oxford Internet Institute, inexplicably voted for the bill. He has nothing to fear from his front bench since he is not standing for re-election, so why?

John Redwood, CON, who harshly criticised the government in second reading for rushing the bill through wash-up, then failed to let his vote follow his political point-scoring. He did not turn up at third reading and vote against the bill as his comments would have suggested (he was in the HC in the afternoon during the debate of the Finance Bill where he made similar comments).

The 44 LIB DEM MPs who, despite their party leaders' assurance that the party would take a stand against the passage of the bill, apparently did not hear the division bell ringing: Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Norman Baker, Annette Brooke, Des Browne, Malcolm Bruce, Lorely Burt, Vince Cable, Ming Campbell, Tim Farron, Andrew George, Sandra Gidley, Julia Goldsworthy, Nick Harvey, David Heath, Paul Holmes, Martin Horwood, Chris Huhne, Mark Hunter, Charles Kennedy, Susan Kramer, Norman Lamb, David Laws, Michael Moore, Greg Mulholland, Mark Oaten, John Pugh, Alan Reid, Willie Rennie, Dan Rogerson, Paul Rowen, Adrian Sanders, Robert Smith, Andrew Stunell, Jo Swinson, Matthew Taylor, Sarah Teather, Steve Webb, Roger Williams, Stephen Williams, Mark Williams, Phil Willis, Jenny Willott and Richard Younger-Ross. They may not have been able to add much to the debate, but their presence (and vote against) would have made the government's victory much less impressive.

The Tory and Labour backbenchers (of whom there are to many for Matron to list them all) who will have received full postbags and e-mail inboxes from their constituents begin them to intervene and who did not feel it necessary to do the one part of their job (for which - as we all now know - they are handsomely paid) that surely is the raison d'etre for their existence: turn up, debate and vote for or against legislation. Anyone in the private sector would be sacked for such behaviour.

On the plus side, as many others have observed before, this bill has probably done more to bring the shortcomings of the UK's parliamentary procedure to the attention of the silent majority than any other in recent history. Thousands of people will have watched the debates on television and via the internet and it is to be hoped that those people, rather than return to their normal lives in frustration and resignation, will use their pent-up anger to come together and demand constitutional change.

The next step has to be to identify all those who did not attend or who did vote in favour of this insidious bill and who stand for re-election in May and to inform them in no uncertain terms that they will not get our vote unless they give some guarantees that they will what is necessary to ensure that the Bill is revisited as soon as possible in the next Parliament. If the ballot box is really the only way in which ordinary citizens can hope to have any effect on the political decisions made in this country, make sure that you do not pass on that right.

Here's to a hung Parliament and a lively and much needed debate about proportional representation!

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