It’s right that parliament shuts – but democracy can’t be suspended | Polly Toynbee | Opinion

“Who goes home?” two doorkeepers shout out, as per tradition, as the House of Commons rises. All MPs have gone home to lock themselves in for the next month – but the adjournment is likely to last beyond that. Though all parties have agreed, many MPs express anxiety.

What scrutiny will there be? The health select committee meets today virtually, recorded and broadcast. Following a concession on Monday overnight by the Speaker, other committees can follow. But the antiquated rituals of parliament stand in the way of democracy functioning at a distance.

Depressingly, the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said that parliamentary IT teams could not cope with demands for video conferencing. Hoyle is not a man renowned for imagination or innovation: that’s why the Tories chose him, after the reforming John Bercow. While families up and down the land Skype and Zoom, he seems to think it impossible for MPs with laptops to devise a system to keep democracy alive. Old rituals obstruct their original democratic purposes.

The virus brings revelations in all walks of life as office-based employers find virtually everyone can work virtually: watch commercial building rents plummet as a result. This long recess is the moment for parliament to find that it, too, can shed some its more absurd customs and practices. This is the time to set up electronic voting: no more bringing in pregnant women in wheelchairs or sick men wheeling drips.

It’s ridiculous enough that it takes MPs 15 minutes to trail through the lobbies to vote, but ludicrous that the last week has seen MPs taking 45 minutes, in order to observe social distancing. It needs only a little imagination to create virtual debates of the full house, since normally only some 20 or 30 MPs have their names down to speak: all could listen, all could vote.

After failing at first to take serious action – a decision which may end up costing many lives – the government has now introduced the most draconian measures ever in peacetime, rushed through of necessity in this emergency. Few doubt the need. But what’s inside this huge package, how it might be used or abused, will require MPs to report back urgently on cases brought to them. Look at the new ease in detaining people under the Mental Health Act. Or ask why the police are suddenly allowed to retain DNA and fingerprint data for longer. Police have new, almost unlimited powers to close premises and break up gatherings: could that become a ban on all protest?

Under cover of this gargantuan legislation, odd things slid in: I was delighted that abortions, at long last, were to be made administratively easier to save doctors time – but no one knew it until various anti-abortion groups spotted the clause and protested, since when, alas, it has vanished as an “error”. What else may lurk that MPs may need to raise?

There could hardly be a government less trusted to respect parliament than Boris Johnson’s. After his shameless illegal prorogation over Brexit, we know the contempt in which he holds both parliament and the judges who seek to uphold its laws. We know he fully intends to come after the judiciary to curb the rights of citizens – or parliament – to seek redress from an executive acting beyond its powers.

For now, in this crisis, Johnson and his government have strong backing from the public. Everyone needs to feel they can trust the state, the only authority capable of seeing us through this. All of us are willing them to get it right, to acquire the missing ventilators and protective equipment for NHS and social care staff. We need their “whatever it takes” to find a vaccine and a cure. We need “whatever it takes” to keep employees paid, mortgages suspended and companies afloat.

But it took Labour to point out the equally desperate needs of the self-employed and renters – still inadequately helped. It will need Labour voices to keep pointing to weaknesses in safety nets or services failing. What’s more, the government will need Labour support to retain public trust as some of these draconian measures are implemented.

MP George Freeman, in a moment of mischief perhaps, has piped up to call for a government of national unity. No doubt there are Tories who want to make sure, whatever happens, that Labour is fully implicated. For Labour, sharing in the burden of responsibility to support the country through this calamity is essential too, mindful of how Clement Attlee gained after the war from his share in power. But balancing scrutiny of government with support for sometimes unpopular actions will be delicate. An end to politics? Try this thought experiment: had Labour been in power, would the Tories have backed them to empty the treasury to keep jobs and families going, or would they have accused them of using the crisis to further socialism?

The Electoral Reform Society advocates copying Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister: in a fine gesture, she has set up a scrutiny select committee chaired by the leader of the opposition, with a non-government majority, to meet three times weekly by video link to keep a check on her government’s powers. Can anyone imagine Johnson affording Labour such power? For now, everyone pulling together is the mood of the moment, as seen in the admirable public volunteering surge. But beyond this four-week recess, in the long unknowable future, democracy can’t be suspended. The Speaker should use this break to surprise us all with the same willingness to change shown by everyone else in this emergency.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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