Yesterday (Monday) was a historic day in the House of Lords in that peers voted electronically. There were four divisions. There was a high turnout in each one and the process appeared to go smoothly. (There had been various test votes over previous days to check that system worked.) One could vote as soon as the division was called and one’s vote is acknowledged as soon as it is cast.
When I tweeted about the vote, one of those responsible for the system asked if I found it a smooth and straightforward process. The answer to the question is yes. That, though, was to comment on the practice. It was easy to vote. It did, though, get me thinking about the normative question. Should it be easy to vote? There is a moral and a political dimension.
Being made a peer is a great honour. There is a moral obligation, as well as an expectation on the part of the House, that you will give something in return for the honour, namely contributing to the work of the House. That includes taking part in debates, contributing to committee work, and making the effort to be present for divisions. One has to arrange to be in London and to be in the Palace for when a division is expected. One has to be able to get to the division lobbies within eight minutes of a vote being called. Sometimes votes are called fairly late at night.
Now, with electronic voting, one can be anywhere in the country and no great effort is entailed in pressing a button once a vote takes place. You hardly have to interrupt what you are doing. I appreciate that when divisions are held physically, peers will come to vote who have been doing things elsewhere in the Palace – be in working at their desks or having a meal – but at least they are in the Palace. There is a sense of commitment. Now, peers who have contributed little or nothing to the proceedings of the House, be it in terms of debates, committees, or all-party groups, can simply press a button and affect outcomes.
The political dimension is that electronic voting may strengthen the position of the political parties. By voting electronically, you are hidden from the whips – they only know how you have voted after the event. Some may argue that this may embolden members to be more independent in their voting behaviour. In practice, peers with a strong view on an issue will vote as they think fit, regardless of whether whips are physically around or not. The more important point to my mind is that you are not seen by other peers either. You do not get an opportunity to sense the mood of the House; you are not able to chat to others after a minister has replied to a debate and listen to colleagues who are the experts on the subject. You may think twice if you see the leading figure in the field heading to the other lobby. Even if not in for the debate itself (though you may have watched it on the screen), just meeting with other peers on the way to the lobby can make a difference. The act of voting in the lobbies also has an independent benefit in terms of seeing colleagues who otherwise you do not get an opportunity to see and may result in information being exchanged that makes a difference to thinking and behaviour. With electronic voting, the only voting cue is likely to be that provided by the whips. You are no longer part of a collaborative deliberation, but operating as a discrete entity.
It may be that, as electronic voting continues, peers develop ways of using social media to substitute for meeting in the House, but I think there are important consequences to the new method of voting that merit reflection.
This is not to say that we should be voting physically in the lobbies – voting electronically is a necessary expedient in the present crisis. Not being able to vote in recent weeks has strengthened the executive. The point I am making is that one should be wary of seeing it, not least the ease of voting, as an unalloyed good. Should we actually be thinking of imposing conditions, perhaps by requiring peers to log on from the start of a debate?
Now, if I tabled a motion ‘That this House treats with caution the method of voting electronically’ and then forced a vote on it…