Democracy the loser when parliament descends into farce

Democracy inaction. PA

It’s not often that parliamentary procedure hits the headlines so the debate (if you can call it that) in the House of Commons about whether the UK would opt in to various parts of European legislation was a rarity indeed.

Normally media attention on the inner workings of democracy is something to be celebrated but the fiasco surrounding the long-awaited parliamentary vote on the European Arrest Warrant has left many feeling disheartened. Onlookers were treated to a truly confusing spectacle as the vote vanished before their very eyes.

Although 11 measures were put before the Commons, including confiscation orders and freezing orders of criminal records, the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) wasn’t one of them. This despite weeks of debate in the press and a flurry of excitement from backbench Conservatives on the matter. They wanted a vote and had been told that they would get one. Asked why this promise wasn’t delivered on the day, Home Secretary Theresa May argued that there was “no legislative requirement” to bring all of the 35 issues in the package before the House.

The house began to debate the issues only for Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to try to postpone the vote that was to follow. The party whips feared that the vote would be lost and hauled in the prime minister. He emerged – still dressed in white tie – having rushed from the Lord Mayor’s banquet to the division lobby to support the measure. Despite Cooper’s attempts, the vote took place anyway – without the inclusion of the European Arrest Warrant. The government won the vote and now Labour wants a separate vote on the warrant to be held. The government wants a debate to be held about the debate. Baffled? So are the MPs.

Outspoken backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg called the debate a “procedural prestidigitation” and senior Conservative Edward Leigh admitted to being “completely confused”. Even the Speaker, John Bercow admitted that he had thought the house would be debating – and voting on – the EAW as well.

The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy described the incident as “the most extraordinary tangle” the Commons has ever got into, while The Telegraph referred to it as one of the “most chaotic and acrimonious debates in its history”.

After the confusion came the finger pointing but there is little clarity here either. There is an array of speculation as to just who is to blame for this whole sorry episode. For some, it’s David Cameron and Theresa May. Others saw it as opportunism on the part of the Labour Party and accused the opposition of trying to cut short a debate on issues that it actually thought were rather important.

We could argue endlessly about what the government’s master plan had been here and why it all went wrong. But whatever the point of these shenanigans was, there is one clear loser – and that is democracy.

As the debate dissolved into chaos, a message was sent that the government can mess parliament around and doesn’t really need to honour a commitment to giving the House of Commons a vote or a debate on issues. Twitter was awash with comments about parliament being deceived or, even worse, being treated with contempt by the government and it’s not hard to see why.

But more importantly, this debacle showed the business of parliament and parliamentary debate in a very negative light. However the European Arrest Warrant saga is ultimately resolved, the spectacle of MPs arguing in such a way will only add to the already poor public perception of parliament.

The Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement regularly demonstrates the general public’s poor regard for politicians and parliament. Other research has found that the public sees politicians as noisy, aggressive and unprofessional. Earlier this year John Bercow attacked the game playing, partisanship and acrimonious debate displayed during Prime Minister’s Questions, arguing that parliament was “spray painting its own shop window” when its members behaved so badly.

This latest shambles will do nothing to improve the reputation of the people elected to represent the British public. The way citizens perceive parliament is crucial to the functioning of democracy because it affects the trust that they have in the institution.

If the House of Commons chamber is the shop window of parliament, then we need to stop playing politics with parliamentary procedure and to start showcasing mature and sensible debate. This is this kind of debate that actually makes up the vast majority of what goes on in the House of Commons – you just don’t get to read about it, and our politicians don’t do a very good job of publicising it.

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