Why Bother Voting?

Monday, 25 February 2019

When I was a boy, decades ago, I was told a story by one of my teachers. It was a story about why grown-ups voted. It was a story about the country I was growing up in and how it was run. It was a story about an idea: an idea called ‘Democracy’. We vote to choose a Member of Parliament, I was told. This was an important choice, I was told, because our MP was the way in which our voices could be heard in the corridors of power. An MP, I was told, could introduce a Bill to the House of Commons and, if a majority of MPs voted for it, it would become law. That was something special: that someone that I could meet and talk to - someone that I could speak to at an MP’s surgery - could create law. By voting in an election, I was told, I could elect a Member of Parliament who could make a difference in the way the country was run.

It’s a shame it was just a story.

Consider one Christopher Chope, Member of Parliament for Christchurch. In the last year he has opposed at least two Private Member’s Bills - the means by which a Member of Parliament can introduce proposed legislation to the House of Commons. One sought to criminalise ‘upskirting’. Another sought to further protect children at risk of female genital mutilation. Let that sink in for a moment. Why would anyone oppose legislation that might address these issues? It’s nothing to do with these issues in themselves, he claims. He routinely objects to any and all Private Member’s Bills. As soon as any MP does that, the Bill is effectively dead unless the Government adopts it, because the time available for Private Member’s Bills is miniscule.

What’s the point of electing a Member of Parliament, one might ask, if they can’t introduce proposals to be debated to the House of Commons because all it takes is one voice raised in objection to boot it into the long grass? That would be a fair question, but’s that’s not the end of it. That’s very far from the end of it.

What Christopher Chope’s shenanigans do is point up the power of the Government in controlling - or ignoring, if it wishes -  the House of Commons. That might seem an odd thing to say. Surely the House of Commons is the Government, you might think. Surely sovereignty lies with Parliament, you might think. Surely, in a democracy, power lies with the people we elect, you might think.

No. Or, at least, apparently not.

Today we learned that Theresa May has decided not to allow Parliament a meaningful vote on her Brexit withdrawal plan until March 12th. Let those words mull in your brain for a few moments. The Prime Minister of this country will not allow Parliament to vote. She will not allow the people you and I vote to choose - the people you and I elect - to vote. She will not allow them to even to discuss the issue. Does that sound a lot, to you, like anything resembling democracy?

The truth is that our Prime Minister is subverting Parliament. She is engineering a situation where the people you and I elect - the people you and I choose to represent our needs - don’t mean squit because they will be offered a no-choice situation: accept the deal she has struck or face a no-deal Brexit with all the dire consequences that will result from that. And there is no way that the people we elect - the people we choose to represent us - can do anything about that because the rules of the House of Commons have vested the kind of power in the hands of the Prime Minister that means that she can control what Parliament discusses and when.

Brexit has been, in my view, the most damaging thing the country I used to think I belonged to - the United Kingdom - has had to face. One thing that has been damaged beyond repair, in my view, is the reputation of Westminster as a bastion of democracy. We have seen the will and the voices of elected representatives thwarted time and again by a Prime Minister that doesn’t seem to care what they think as long as she “gets the job done”. I dare say Stalin took the same view.

Today I have to question the story I was told all those years ago. I have to ask, what’s the point in voting if the person I elect has no power to make a difference? What’s the point in voting if elected MPs cannot choose when or how they vote, or on what issues? What’s the point in voting if the people we elect can be sidelined and neutered at the whim of the worst prime Minister in living memory? 

Maybe, in the coming days, the UK Parliament will surprise me. Maybe our Members of Parliament will take back control and re-assert the authority of Parliament. Or they may, again, signal that the House of Commons is just a talking shop and that the people we vote for are no more than lobby-fodder.