Apologies to BBC Radio 4 for plagiarising what is probably their copyright programme title. Still, it seems everyone is at it these days, so if the BBC does decide to get litigious, there are bigger targets ahead of me in the queue – notably Lord Mandelson himself, sponsor of the Digital Economy Bill.
We have all grown used to politicians bemoaning the lack of public engagement with politics, and asking why so few people – especially “the young” – see voting as a vital civic duty. Indeed, from 1955 to 1992, UK voter turn-out at General Elections oscillated in a fairly narrow band between about 72% and 78%. In 1992 it was 77.7%; in 1997, 71.4%; then in 2002 it fell to 59.4% and in 2005 it stayed at 61.4%. In the context of the previous half-century, electoral participation fell off a cliff.
61.4% voter turn-out may or may not seem like a lot, but it comfortably outstrips MPs’ participation in yesterday’s proceedings. Out of 646 MPs, about 40 turned up: that’s 6.2%.
A small handful of MPs both made sense and expressed their (and voters’) opposition to the Bill – notably Austin Mitchell, Tom Watson and John Redwood. John Grogan was widely cited on Twitter for pointing out the dubious circumstances under which established media industries gained access to Lord Mandelson in the run-up to the Bill’s submission.
Still more MPs condemned the way in which the Bill (a far-reaching, complex and controversial piece of legislation by any standards) has been rushed through the parliamentary process – describing it as ‘a shameful piece of rail-roading’, ‘squalid collusion between the three front benches’, ‘a disgrace’. One MP – otherwise a vociferous supporter of the Bill, said they had been “thoroughly let down by the Government’s business managers”.
On the face of it, then, objecters to the Bill seem to have got their point across – if only to a few MPs. I know, too, that there were people following yesterday’s debate who have never done so before – on television, over the internet, via Twitter and so on. So much the better, you might think, for that elusive ‘voter engagement’.
Regrettably, yesterday’s debate cast our parliamentary process in the worst possible light. The sight of that almost empty chamber makes an instant and damaging impression. The incoherent ramblings of several of the contributors, interrupted by mostly pointless (or worse, point-scoring) demands for the speaker to “give way” don’t help. The pinnacle of debate was reached, it seemed to me, by the softly-spoken Derek Wyatt (Lab – Sittingbourne). “The DEBill is not perfect”, he said, “but I think we should give it a try”. What kind of a basis is that for legislation, for goodness’ sake? I wonder if he would say the same thing about mephedrone.
By far the most damaging aspect, though, is this:
- Out of 646 MPs, a scant three dozen turned up;
- Of those, about a dozen made substantive speeches – most just sat there;
- Of those who spoke, some criticised the substance of the Bill, but even those in favour of it frequently condemned the way in which it has been shoved through Parliament…
and yet all of them, without exception, voted it through its second reading.
There we have it. Members of all three parties expressed opposition to at least some parts of the Bill, and objected to the abuse of process which will see it evade proper scrutiny, debate and revision.
But they still voted in favour – and to most of those watching (especially if it’s for the first time) that is utterly incomprehensible.
This will affect “voter engagement”, without a doubt – but just like the DEBill itself, the consequences are entirely unpredictable. Judging by the Twitter traffic, a lot of people were simply angered enough to vote against the Bill’s proponents, regardless of political affiliation.
Many, though, will simply shrug their shoulders and turn away in disgust, wondering why they bothered to take an interest. The opposite of love is not hate, I was once told. It is indifference.