Covid-19 has forced us to adapt

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special Adviser. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

So much of politics takes place in the margins; politicians physically bumping into each other in the corridor, in the MPs-only tearoom, and in the division lobbies.

It’s not just backbenchers; an industrious minister can often achieve far more huddled with a colleague before or after some dry Cabinet sub-committee than in the meeting itself.

All those chance encounters and snatched conversations are out for as long as the new ways of working are in.

MPs have accepted those ways of working to ensure scrutiny of the Government without risking the health of those who have to be in Westminster, and have adapted well to meetings on Zoom instead of in Portcullis House.

While the new proceedings are working well enough, whenever you change the nature of Parliament you change the nature of the politics that takes place within it.

We last saw this after the expenses scandal.

Select Committees became relevant, capable of setting the news agenda with high-profile Chairs elected by all MPs and evidence sessions people actually wanted to tune in to. Campaigning backbenchers saw new routes to push their causes through debate slots that they – not the Government – controlled, and online petitions opened up greater public involvement in what Parliament debates.

The type of person coming into Parliament changed and, with the later introduction of recall, even the person themselves occasionally changed mid-Parliament.

It will be up to MPs whether to keep any of the more radical changes, such as electronic voting, that have been pitched to them as temporary, but there will certainly be other opportunities for longer-term innovation.

Select Committees – already early adopters of technology before the crisis – lend themselves to more creative scrutiny, with witnesses perhaps appearing virtually at shorter notice, or Committee visits being livestreamed.

The political agenda, too, will change as society reassesses what it collectively values, and politicians try to anticipate the public mood.

Debates on issues as varied as supply chain resilience, broadband and 5G, social care, and the future of the BBC will be shaped by the public’s experience of the crisis and politicians’ response.

Engagement has clearly changed, too, as social distancing takes away opportunities to build relationships in the way we have become accustomed to.

As we get used to working without that face-to-face contact, it will be more important than ever to prioritise arguments that anticipate and respond to the changed political agenda and demand attention at a time when MPs and ministers have far less bandwidth.

We don’t yet know what permanent changes we will be left with, but we can be sure that whenever it is safe for MPs to go back to bumping into each other they will be doing so in a Parliament – and a political environment – that is different to the ones they left.

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This piece was written for PRWeek.