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COVID-19 has Brought Our Slow-Moving Democratic Crisis Front and Centre

Kyle Taylor shares the recommendations of a new report focused on solutions to keep democratic processes going during crises such as the Coronavirus outbreak.

COVID-19 HAS BROUGHT Our Slow-Moving Democratic Crisis Front and Centre

Kyle Taylor shares the recommendations of a new report focused on solutions to keep democratic processes going during crises such as the Coronavirus outbreak

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Humans are evolved to be really good at dealing with an acute crisis such as a global pandemic. Let a threat slowly build over time, however – like the chipping away at our democratic rules and norms – and we are totally incapable of dealing with it. 

The swift attempts made at curbing the spread of COVID-19-related disinformation and misinformation on social media are to be applauded. They prove that something can be done quickly when there is the political will to act. The question this raises is why we do not have the same concern when our democracy is under attack by a foreign government or bad actor?

The pandemic is a crisis of unprecedented proportions exasperated in some places by failed leadership and gross incompetence. Now our democratic systems themselves are in grave danger. With ideas of assembly, deliberation and debate central to its definition, democracy is particularly threatened by this disease, the eradication of which requires us to remain physically apart from our fellow citizens. 

In the past few months, more than 60 countries and territories around the world have decided to postpone national or sub-national elections. Votes that have gone ahead have often been marred in controversy. Parliaments and legislatures have had their work slowed down, restricted or completely adjourned. 

Given how unclear the route out of this crisis still is, suspended elections and parliaments cannot be a long-term solution. But if they cannot continue as they did before and cannot be allowed to stop, what can we do? This was the question Fair Vote UK’s consultation into Democracy in the Age of Pandemic aimed to address. With more than 80 responses from a wide range of private citizens, elected representatives and fellow civil society organisations, the process threw up a multitude of ideas and suggestions.

High-Tech Parliament, Low-Tech Elections

Some respondents were supportive of moving elections online. Many, however, were not, citing issues of security, accessibility and verifiability.

A crisis of this magnitude is not the time to introduce what is a controversial proposition at the best of times, not least because solutions are needed quickly. But in the case of parliaments and the machinations of government, it is clear that there is little reason remote functioning should not be implemented. Legislatures must be able to continue their vital scrutinising work. Teleconferenced select committees, video-linked ministerial questioning and online voting – all endorsed by the majority of our respondents – are sensible responses to this crisis.

The UK Government and Parliament’s haphazard response to COVID-19 has also demonstrated the need for a clearly defined and codified crisis-response protocol. A future crisis needs to see Parliament immediately switch to remote functioning. It also needs to see the creation of an opposition-led and digitally viewable Crisis-Response Select Committee. This would guarantee high profile scrutiny not set on the Government’s terms.

There were encouraging signs in recent weeks as Parliament slowly but positively got its act together with video-based committee meetings, PMQs and voting. It seemed that perhaps some of these more positive changes, like remote voting for members unable to be physically present – spurred on by past incidents in which MPs have been forced to attend the house pregnant and violently ill – might be scenes of the past.

That progress was lost, however, when Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the Commons, halted all virtual functions and forced all MPs to return to Westminster despite COVID-19 continuing to wreak havoc across the country. This act of gross incompetence led to a scare that the Business Secretary Alok Sharma had been showing signs of having the Coronavirus at the despatch box a day after meeting with the Prime Minister and Chancellor. He later tested negative for the virus.

It is clear the threats posed by ‘in-person governance’ are still too great but they are also totally avoidable thanks in large part to technology. With elections, however, technology looks more likely to exacerbate already glaring issues of access and suffrage, further disenfranchising already vulnerable groups. 

In the wake of this acute threat, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit the workings of our seemingly sacred institutions and ensure that the country stays in the hands of its people – no matter what threat it may face next.

Kyle Taylor is Project Director at Fair Vote UK

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