04
May 2020

Written by:

David Button

Senior Account Director

The new normal: the joys and challenges of a virtual Parliament and what this means for public affairs professionals

With our virtual Parliament now up and running, the ‘new normal’ is in full swing and viewers of BBC Parliament are getting little glimpses into the lives of their elected representatives.

Breaking 700 years of parliamentary tradition, it is truly historic. For the first time in parliamentary history, PMQs has been conducted by video-link and Conservative MP, Sara Britcliffe became the first ever Member of Parliament to give their maiden speech remotely from the comfort of her home via Zoom (a tool most of us had never heard six weeks ago).

It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Technological glitches have occurred. At the first virtual PMQs, Conservative MP, David Mundell was unable to connect, missing out on asking his question. During a Select Committee session with the Education Secretary, Caroline Johnson MP’s question was indecipherable leading to the Chair stepping in.

There are plans to introduce remote voting and tests are being carried out, but this has yet to be fully secured meaning that key votes are unable to take place.

The proceedings are hybrid, meaning up to 50 MPs can be in the House of Commons, spaced six feet apart, and another 150 can join via Zoom. This, of course, means that most MPs are left out and must resort to watching Parliament on television.

Virtual Parliament is currently confined to oral and urgent questions and ministerial statements, meaning that other aspects of Parliament have been shelved, including adjournment, opposition day and Westminster Hall debates.

This all raises wider questions about how effectively MPs can raise the views of their constituents, with fewer participation opportunities and not being able to collar ministers in the division lobby.

But it is only natural that in the early days, there will be a few technical hiccups and the overall consensus is that during these unprecedented times, a virtual Parliament is vital to ensure the continuation of our democratic processes and for our concerns to be represented.

To put it simply, during these unprecedented times, a virtual Parliament is better than no Parliament.

We will also likely see a change in how the virtual Parliament operates in the coming weeks, with the scope of activity widened, including more debates and voting on legislation. This can only enhance its effectiveness and overall functioning.

Other countries are yet to follow the UK’s lead. The German Bundestag and the Irish Dail are both continuing to meet in person and the U.S. House of Representatives hasn’t approved proxy voting, amid opposition from Republican lawmakers. In just two weeks of virtual Parliament, the UK has shown that it can be a model for being the closest you can get to business as usual.

But for public affairs professionals seeking to influence policy, this new normal certainly brings its challenges.

Whilst public affairs professionals should continue covering key parliamentary activity and encouraging MPs to submit questions, they also need to be planning for when more routine parliamentary business kicks in (whether virtually or not) and devising creative and proactive programmes.

They should be succinct in thinking about what campaigns to engage on and be very clear on the ‘asks’, they wish to make. With Covid-19 transforming the political landscape for the foreseeable future, it is vital that messages and asks are aligned within its context, because this will be the Government’s biggest priority.

Most of us have made great use of digital tools in engaging with parliamentarians during the past few weeks and this will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future. MPs are tweeting more too, raising the importance of using social media to get your point across.

It remains to be seen how long this virtual Parliament will last, but it is possible that normal service will not resume until after the summer recess. Whilst we, public affairs professionals are used to face-to-face meetings and in-person events, the days of traditional lobbying are over for now and we should look to embrace this new normal and make the most out of the opportunities it offers.