The top image is from a backbench debate in into the impact of welfare reforms after a petition. It is poorly-attended because the debate had, by this point, been going on for a while. A screen grab from the start and close of the debate would have shown a more packed chamber. When debates go on for several hours, MPs often pop in and out as they have other business going on at the same time. They may be in a select committee, meeting constituents, taking part in a Westminster Hall debate, running an all-party parliamentary group meeting, briefing journalists, plotting a rebellion with colleagues or working in their office. They were all whipped by their respective parties to vote on this motion. But even though speaking in the debate gave MPs an opportunity to put their point of view across, it changed nothing because the type of debate meant the result of the vote was in no way binding on the government.
Here’s another image, from something called the, which a very intelligent friend of mine shared on Facebook this morning:
Good, grief, look at how many MPs are debating their expenses! That image on the bottom left struck me as a bit strange when I zoomed in. When you’re used to looking down on the tops of MPs’ heads from the Commons press gallery, you get quite used to what Parliament looks like from above. And I didn’t recognise that Parliament. The hair looked different, frankly. I was right not to recognise it: when this debate took place, I was preparing to take my A-levels. It was 27 January 2004, when MPs voted on the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill to introduce top-up fees. Here’s that picture in better quality from the Press Association archive.
Given university fees are still a big debate a decade later, surely even the Coalition of Resistance acolytes might be quite grateful parliamentarians bothered to turn up for that.
The next image claims to be a debate on MPs’ pay. Well, I suppose if you count MPs coming into the House of Commons on the first day of the new Parliament after the 2010 election a debate on MPs’ pay then maybe. But you can, just to be sure.
The screenshots at the top of that graphic may well be more accurate. For instance, here is the . It doesn’t show a particularly packed Chamber.
But even here it is worth remembering that this was a non-binding vote that caused a great deal of debate outside the Chamber.
I do have some sympathy for some of the frustration that people feel when they flick on BBC Parliament and do see only five sleepy MPs sitting in the Chamber apparently debating ‘the impact of welfare reform on disabled people’ or something with a very serious title like that. It immediately appears as though the politicians do not care about this very serious subject – when the reality is that this is an Opposition Day debate that makes no difference to the way the government runs its affairs or sets policy.
You might argue that, for many MPs, it is more constructive to be outside the Chamber during those sessions if they can influence government policy by scrutinising it in other ways. A select committee, for example, or writing parliamentary questions, briefing journalists on the failure of a certain policy or taking a delegation of MPs to lobby the Prime Minister. But very few people understand the different sorts of Commons business and assume that everything that takes place in the Chamber has the same import. It doesn’t.
Journalists (like me) who cover parliament don’t help if we assume that everyone knows the difference between an opposition debate and a vote on a Government bill. Or if we suggest that a Labour vote on housing benefit is a ‘crunch vote.’ Such votes can be talked up, in an effort to encourage readers to view Parliament with the same excitement and sense of drama that us strange Westminster Village hermits do.
And perhaps if trust in politicians were higher, these memes wouldn’t be shared so uncritically as people would think there was something rum about them. But I suspect that the lack of suspicion about what the graphics purport to show doesn’t just arise because MPs have let us down. It’s also because of a failure to read the internet critically and a lack of knowledge about what Parliament does and how it works. These memes certainly aren’t doing any explaining, they are deceitfully spreading lies.