One of the things that has been a repeated meme in various blog posts and tweets related to the Digital Economy Bill over the past couple of days has been the seemingly low numbers of MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons when it was being debated. Typical comments include this one:
There are 646 MPs. About 40 turned up for the second reading. About 16 made it to the end.
The third reading has been just as bad. Almost Empty. 2 hours given to debate amendments to 50 clauses.
The first clause took 1hr. The last 49 were glossed over in the last hour.
Ten minutes before the vote labour MPs put down their drinks, pulled themselves out of the bar and stumbled in to vote for the Bill. Having listened to nothing.
The problem with this is that it’s simply wrong. Other than the big set-piece occasions such as PMQs, MPs don’t – and don’t need to – attend the chamber unless they’re planning to speak in the debate. And no more than a small proportion of the total number of MPs will ever get to speak in a debate anyway, due to time constraints, so what that means is that the chamber is normally near-empty. But that doesn’t mean the rest aren’t following the debate, or haven’t taken part in discussions elsewhere in the house. Like the rest of us, MPs themselves follow most chamber debates on TV.
When televising parliament was first mooted, this was actually one of the objections raised – viewers would see a near-empty chamber most of the time, and wrongly assume that most MPs were doing nothing or weren’t interested in the subject under debate. In the early days of parliament broadcasting, therefore, the broadcasters were at pains to point out to their viewers that the chamber is just a small part of what goes on, and attendance in the chamber is a relatively small proportion of an MP’s time. But they’ve stopped doing that now, presumably because they assume that most regular viewers are aware of the fact.
Unfortunately, a lot of viewers watching the DEBill debates aren’t regulars, and aren’t aware that numbers in the chamber are relatively meaningless. Yes, the fact that the LibDems could only manage one contributor to the debate on Tuesday night is pretty pathetic – I’m not expecting a full chamber, but I’d have expected at least a handful of contributors from all the main parties. And, yes, the whole wash-up process is pretty disreputable and the way that both government and opposition front benches colluded to let the bill go through is unseemly. But complaining about a low turnout overall in the chamber is missing the point. And not only is it missing the point, but it places the bill’s critics in exactly the same position as many of those they are criticising.
One of the main objections to the bill is that it seems to have been drafted by people with little or no knowledge of either the Internet or the fact that there’s far more to the music industry than the old-fashioned record companies. And those criticisms are entirely valid – as someone who has worked in both media, music and the Internet I can honestly say that the bill’s proponents don’t represent me in the slightest. But making specious complaints about the lack of numbers in the chamber is exactly the same error – it’s demonstrating a fundamental ignorance about how the system works.
People who live in glass houses should not, as the saying goes, throw stones, and it doesn’t help the anti-DEBill case if those making it demonstrate the same kind of naivete as the bill’s supporters.
The reality is that, with the wash-up process as it is, the bill was never in any significant danger of being dropped or lost unless the Conservatives decided to formally oppose it. And, apart from a few clauses, they didn’t. So it’s time to move on from this argument, and start again in the next parliament. The Conservatives and LibDems have both said that they think the bill should be revisited after the election and altered as necessary, so the next stage of the campaign is to make sure that their promise is kept and that the bill is amended to get rid of the most egregious aspects (and ensure that subsequent legislation doesn’t bring back the bits that did get dropped, such as the original clause 43).
The best thing that the campaigners can do now is to focus on the election in their own constituencies, and make sure that all the candidates are aware that support for the unamended bill is a vote-loser. Extract, where possible, a promise from the candidates to vote for changes in the next parliament, and then make sure that they’re publicly shamed if they don’t keep them when elected.
A battle has been lost. But it’s a battle we expected to lose. The good news is that the election means we still have a chance to win the war.