In any normal year, Parliament closes for three weeks while two of the three main political parties, plus the Liberal Democrats, hold their conferences. The last couple of weeks of September and the first week of October see the main parties talk about their values, aspirations and policy proposals. And, of course, we see the mistakes, the party faithful talking about their likes and dislikes, senior politicians being caught unaware whilst making an unhelpful comment. And we see the reaction of the audiences to the main speeches.
This year is very different. This year it is all done online. We get the speeches, the policy and the values comments, but we can’t see what the audience is saying.
It is a very strange dynamic and one that sheds little light on what party followers are saying. Interestingly, far more people have signed up to the virtual conferences than the more traditional ones – probably because the financial penalty of physically attending does not exists.
Meanwhile, Parliament continues to sit in its strange, artificial way. I am keeping busy with constituency work and my parliamentary duties as a member of the International Trade Select Committee and my chairmanship of the Committee on Arms Exports Controls. However, do MPs really need to be in London when we can temporarily conduct our duties online – ensuring we work in a Covid-Secure manner. The virtual voting system was dumped a few months ago, but beyond that, all meetings are on Zoom, members can appear in the chamber remotely, and face to face meetings are all but banned. Were it not for voting, we could be saving a lot of time and money by working from our constituencies.
Last week, an SNP member was caught out. It was widely reported that she suffered coronavirus symptoms, took a test, and whilst waiting for the result, travelled to London, spoke in the chamber, and on hearing the positive results of the test, checked out of her hotel and sat on a 400 mile train journey back to Scotland. An SNP spokesman said of the MP that “she is a bit hard of thinking”.
It was a fantastically stupid thing to have done, but I suspect that it was motivated by nothing more than a genuine desire to represent her constituents. But this story illustrates how foolish it is that MPs are ordered to London weekly, to mingle, spreading amongst ourselves any infection, then taking it back to our constituencies. With a viable alternative, it does seem crazy to go against the government’s guidance to work from home when possible.