Gaza vote chaos highlights pressure on MPs

The “aye” and “noe” division lobbies in the House of Commons do not allow for nuance or subtlety.

Parliamentary procedure has no space for multiple choice answers.

That is what the Commons Speaker tried, and spectacularly failed, to create on Wednesday night as MPs debated the UK’s response to the war between Israel and Hamas.

As he gave Labour MPs the chance to vote for a ceasefire with conditions attached, Sir Lindsay Hoyle anticipated it would be followed by a vote on the SNP motion, and then the government amendment too.

By pulling the plug on proceedings and allowing the Labour amendment to pass, the Conservatives scuppered the chance for the SNP to have a vote.

They also brought down the Speaker’s plan to give each of the three biggest parties their chance to make clear exactly where they stand on a hugely divisive issue, in a context of growing concern about MPs’ safety.

In recent weeks, the Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green Mike Freer has announced he will be standing down from Parliament after receiving death threats.

A fellow Conservative MP, Tobias Ellwood, has spoken about protests outside his home over the situation in Gaza.

Last November, the office of shadow Welsh secretary Jo Stevens was daubed in red paint and covered in posters which accused her of having “blood” on her hands after she abstained in a vote on a ceasefire.

Jo Stevens constituency office on Albany Road covered in red paint and bannersJo Stevens constituency office on Albany Road covered in red paint and banners

Jo Stevens’s constituency office on Albany Road, Roath, was covered in red paint and banners

Shadow Leader of the Commons Lucy Powell was reflecting these situations and more when she said in the Commons that MPs are working under a “long shadow of threats, intimidation and security concerns”.

In his apology to MPs, the Speaker said “the details of the things that have been brought to me are absolutely frightening”.

There is no doubt Speaker Hoyle takes MPs’ safety seriously. He has previously suggested that the possibility of another violent attack on an MP keeps him awake at night.

Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker described it as an “obsession” that had “clouded” the Speaker’s judgement when he chose to depart from normal procedure.

But those Conservative backbenchers now calling for the Speaker to go believe that changing the rules amounts to a concession to what they see as intimidating behaviour from some pro-Palestinian protestors.

The former attorney general, Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Cox, described it as “abject surrender to intolerance and tyranny”, which “offers up the House of Commons as able to be influenced by external threats”.

Lord Walney, the government’s Independent Adviser on Political Violence and Disruption, told the BBC: “It is extraordinarily serious to have a position where the events of our seat of democracy can be influenced by a sense of threat coming from outside.

“Be that from the angry crowd that was gathered around while the vote was taking place last night, or the increasing levels of intimidation that MPs are facing at their homes, outside their offices, going about their business.

“We can not tolerate this situation, we’re all damaged by it if we do.”

Others have warned there is a danger of conflating legitimate protest with threatening behaviour.

The left-wing campaign group Momentum released a statement saying it is “vital that our elected representatives can fulfil their democratic mandates in safety”.

“It is wrong to conflate this safety with insulation from democratic accountability,” a spokesperson added.

‘Not good enough’

The Metropolitan Police said their officers had facilitated the right to protest peacefully at the time of the vote, and no arrests were made.

But while the concern for MPs’ safety has been heightened since the conflict in Gaza, this is far from the first time that MPs have faced binary choices where their preferred option might often be “somewhere in between”.

Speaking to BBC Newscast, Hannah White from the Institute for Government said the procedure was “more restrictive than optimal because it was developed when we only had two main parties in the House”.

She said: “I do think there’s an issue with the difficulty the House has in deciding anything other than binary questions.

“We saw it with House of Lords reform, we saw it with indicative votes on Brexit.

“If you have more than two options it’s really difficult under parliamentary procedures to get a sensible way of deciding on those.

“And now that we have a third party in the House on a regular basis we need to recognise that and say procedures that only deal with two main parties are not good enough anymore.”

Conservative MP Vicky Ford suggested an alternative course of action, arguing that MPs should be allowed to register a written explanation along side their votes, to explain why they have voted the way they have, as happens in the European Parliament.

She said a “lack of transparency” explaining why MPs vote a certain way was being “wilfully used to drum up hatred”.

The leader of the Commons Penny Mordant described her suggestion as “interesting”.

And the wider question posed by Wednesday’s events remains. Is reducing a complex, divisive, and highly emotional issue to a simple “yes” or “no” answer always the best way to proceed?

That’s the way it works in Parliament, and it has for hundreds of years.

By 111 Tech

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