I wake today feeling decidedly naive. Last night I learnt a lot about the UK democratic process and how Parliament works. Courtesy of BBC Democracy Live (a superb resource) I was able to watch the third and final debate on the Digital Economy Bill in the House of Commons.
It lasted about an hour and a half, with a tiny handful of clauses discussed and the vast majority of the bill going uncommented due to time constraints. A process that should normally take about 40 hours took less than 2. Almost all the contributors were speaking against the bill, with Don Foster (Lib Dem culture secretary) and Tom Watson (Labour candidate West Bromwich East) leading the charge. Watson in particular made a heroic final stand, attempting to bring in amendments to fix the most woeful parts of the bill.
Other contributors to the debate either made valid points or expressed keen interest and concern in a topic they clearly hadn’t had time to properly examine. All of these people I commend for trying to do their jobs properly.
Then you have Stephen Timms, Labour MP, who has been in charge of pushing through the bill regardless of debate or sense. He displayed an amazing ability to put his fingers in his ears and completely ignore everything that was going on around him, neatly acknowledging and swiftly dismissing every concern, while spouting endless technologically ignorant comments (referring to peer to peer ‘sites'; recommending ‘adding a password’ to ensure ultimate wifi security). The other people in the House may as well have not been there. Timms had already made his mind up and nobody would sway him. That was only to be expected, though.
Worse was Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, who waded in halfway through the debate seemingly having not paid any attention to the previous hour of intelligent comments, or indeed the previous weeks of discussion, and contributed the most vacuous, pointless and ignorant comments of the evening. He managed to reduce the argument to a simplistic level that even the BPI wouldn’t attempt.
The debate itself, though, was a good one, albeit ludicrously curtailed.
It’s what followed that surprised me, having not been aware of Parliamentary procedure until now.
There were perhaps 40 MPs in the House for the debate, almost all of whom seemed to have serious concerns about the bill. Given a vote consisting of these people, MPs that had bothered to show up for the debate and who would vote in an informed manner regardless of whether they were for or against, the bill would not have passed.
A funny thing hapened on the way to the vote. As it was called, about 200 MPs suddenly rushed into the House from elsewhere, most probably the bar, and contributed their votes as well. 200 MPs that couldn’t be bothered to attend the debate or listen to the issues or research the topics, suddenly casting their votes on a major issue. Surely British democracy doesn’t hinge on uninformed people temporarily leaving the pub to slap a vote down before returning to their pints? How do they know what to vote?
That, of course, comes down to the whips. These are essentially party enforcers that tell members how to vote on important topics, to ensure party cohesion. They’re a control mechanism, in other words. They exist to enable MPs to be lazy. They exist so that MPs can let other people with vested interests make their decisions for them. Does this seem democratic or right? No, it doesn’t.
There are three levels of whip. A ‘one line whip’ only provides guidance, allowing the MP to follow his own instincts. There’s a ‘two line whip’, whereby the party strictly instructs people to vote in a particular way but won’t punish them if they do otherwise.
The Digital Economy Bill had a ‘three line whip’ from Labour. This means that if Labour MPs voted against the bill, they would be subject to sanctions and punishment, including possibly being expelled from the party. In other words, Labour were saying “vote for the Digital Economy Bill, or you’re out”. This left Labour MPs that opposed the bill in a difficult position: do they vote according to their moral and ethical compasses and according to their sense of justice, or do they vote in order to keep their comfy positions in Parliament? Well, obviously they did the latter, because they’re politicians. Then you had the rest of the Labour MPs who did what they were told without even realising the importance of the issue.
Then, once again, you have Tom Watson. A Labour MP who voted against the bill, breaking the three line whip. He didn’t do what he was told. He acted according to his conscience, following his own principles, regardless of the consequences. His Labour peers may not be approving of his actions this morning, but he should rest assured that a new generation of voters were watching, and remembering, and taking notes for the future.
That is something that all the parties may have overlooked in this whole debacle: they have risked waking a sleeping dragon through their mishandling of the bill. Non-political people have become activists. People that have never had any interest in the workings of the House of Commons watched several hours of live debate over the Internet or on digital television channels. Young people, many of them too young to actually vote yet, or approaching their first vote, were watching. All of them saw the facade of democracy crumble into pieces and witnessed the ridiculous, inefficient traditions of Parliament fail them definitively.
In the years to come, the Digital Economy Bill will be marked as the turning point for many people. It will be the moment they started voting. It will be the moment they decided to become a politician in order to try to fix the broken system. It will be the moment they became activists, protesting in their own individual ways. Specifically, it will be the moment that a new generation realised that the UK government does not listen, will not listen and has no interest in them or the developing future.
What a lot of these politicians don’t realise, and neither do the big media corporations, is that the Internet is coming for them. They can legislate as much as they like but it won’t make a difference. It’s coming and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until there’s a new order, whether in a year, ten years or fifty years. They can either ride with us or be swept aside.