Catering for extended absences would mean fewer by-elections though
Parliament took another small step towards the 21st Century last month, when it voted without opposition to allow MPs who are new parents to nominate a colleague to cast proxy votes on their behalf, meaning that they can more meaningfully take maternity or paternity leave without having to worry too much about the effect that doing so would have on the government’s majority.
Some might argue that MPs occupy an unusual position that’s not comparable to normal jobs; that they are elected by their public and have not only a mandate but also a duty to represent their constituents. As such, giving their vote to a colleague abdicates that responsibility and undermines democracy.
There is a little in that argument but surely the stronger point is that parliament should ideally represent the country at large. Two under-represented groups are women and the under-35s and making Westminster more family-friendly might address some of the structural reasons that result in those imbalances.
However, if parliament is going to consider the principle that someone who wasn’t elected to represent a given constituency can cast votes on behalf of the MP who was, why limit it just to sitting MPs? After all, much of an MP’s job is done outside the voting lobbies – receiving and responding to constituency mail; tabling questions, amendments, EDMs and so on; speaking in the Chamber; serving on Select and other Committees. Some of those roles could be filled by either the MP’s office acting on an understanding of what the member would want, and for the larger parties, many points that a given MP might make could likely be made by a colleague but that needn’t be true for smaller parties, for example.
Also, why limit the proxy system to just parental leave? Sheffield Hallam effectively went without an MP for several months when Jared O’Mara went on what amounted to a self-declared long-term sick. His case might have been a little unusual in its specifics but it’s far from unknown for MPs to function at far below the normal capacity due to illness, particularly where it’s a terminal one but also when the MP might be recovering from a serious accident, illness or other medical event. On the one hand, their constituents deserve representation; on the other, it simply might not be possible or if it is, it might be unreasonable to expect it.
One argument would be that MPs in such positions should resign and let someone who can do the work take over. But such a case ignores both a basic humanity and also practical politics. MPs are unlikely to resign where they think their party might lose the seat – especially when the numbers in parliament are poised as the currently are. Also, where the MP recovers, or expects to, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect him or her to resign.
It’s not unreasonable, however, for the voters to expect their voice to be heard in Westminster. How to square the circle? I’d suggest that it ought to be possible for an MP to nominate a substitute to act as a proxy, with full powers and for up to six months at a time, subject to a confirmatory vote in the Commons. That condition might give a little scope for mischief but there would have to be some sort of check on the system.
The limited proposals for parental leave are a good baby step in the right direction but they could, and should, go a lot further.