Wednesday, November 12, 2008

MPs Bury Heads in Sand Over e-Democracy

Yesterday afternoon I was part of a panel at the e-Democray conference. Pete Bazalgette (who created Big Brother), Labour MP Margaret Moran and LibDem MP Willie Rennie were the other participants. Normally, this sort of panel is quite tepid because there is a certain amount of agreement across the panel. Not yesterday.

Willie Rennie was the victor of the 2006 Dunfermline by-election. He is also the head of the LibDems Parliamentary Campaigns team (or so it said on the programme). LibDems are normally very switched in with regard to campaigning. Generally, they "get" what technology can contribute to campaigns. Not Willie Rennie, though. His entire web strategy was to have collected 1,500 email addresses from constituents within two years, to whom he sends a monthly email. He doesn't even post the email on his website (which he shares with the local MSP!). He has not blog, no other web presence and derided those who did. He didn't fancy blogging in case he said something against the party line. I didn't think that would be so much of a problem for the LibDems, but there you go. I have rarely encountered a politician so immune to the opportunities which the internet provides.

Margaret Moran seemed obsessed by one subject. If her analysis was right, her Luton constituency is full of wife beaters. The only subject she seemed at all interested in was domestic violence and how she could "outreach" to the victims of it. All well and good, but what about the other 99.9% of her constituents. She had been involved in an online community group for her Asian constituents, which, knock me down with a feather, even has recipes for curry on it! She, again, seemed frightened of the blogosphere and couldn't see any redeeming factor. I think it was her (although it may have been Willie) who described it as full of "white noise". She didn't understand that it's quite easy to filter out the white noise. She alleged all the bloggers were the same people that write letters to the local paper or fill her mailbag. That may or may not be true, but she seemed to want to ignore them, almost as if they didn't deserve a voice if they weren't victims of domestic violence. Extraordinary. She then said that these were the sort of people whose only interest was to comment on her "boobs and shoes". She was indeed wearing a very nice pair of shoes!

Both these MPs were on full 'send mode', without a clue how to switch to 'receive'.

The audience seemed to be shaking its collective head at the views of the two politicians, as well they might. It was profoundly depressing to see two elected representatives who not only did not "get" what the internet can achieve in terms of e-Democracy. They showed no sign of even having an open mind on the subject.

UPDATE: Spartakan provides a comprehensive review of the conference and pays me a backhanded compliment... "an articulate, educated man in a grey suit if ever there was one". I don't do grey suits, but I am sure Saffron Walden County High School will be pleased!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Iain. I was at the conference too and one theme throughout the day, at least at the sessions I attended, was that so few politicians were engaged in all this. As you say, they are in "send" not "receive". I only hope that those MPs who do engage reap the benefits at the next election.

Anonymous said...

Why should MPs blog? It's not a more legitimate means of communication then any other. You're being a little bit self obsessed I think, it's like me going off on one about the lack of MPs choosing to communicate via anon postings.

And I find your comment about wife beaters in Luton hugely insulting, especially as I've never heard you ask Nadine Dorries for stats on the number of aborted 24 week babys in her constituency. MPs can take on causes which don't reflect every single one of their constituents.

Alan Douglas said...

"They showed no sign of even having an open mind on the subject."

Why should they on this subject, when on most or all others they cannot ?

Not exactly Frank Fields, are they !

Alan Douglas

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Full send mode? Like they are about their copies of 1984?

wv: pluflodd ... it sounds somehow apt.

Benny said...

It reminds me of the politician who's blackberry kept going off in the HoC because he only used it for email and had no idea how to use it for phone calls or how to turn it to silent. How odd.

Guthrum said...

Mainly because they do not like it when the public express an opinion they cannot cope with

Kerry McCarthy - sent a copy of 1984 yells racist at those people leaving comments and wants to talk about prostitution

Paul Flynn- sent a copy of 1984, wants to talk about smoking not civil liberties

Tom Harris - sent a copy of 1984 though it was a 'rollicking good yarn'

Yes it was a Libertarian intiative, but it was members o the public who paid for and sent the books. MP's hate the very idea that the public are the people who pay their way, my personal feeling is that if they could do away with the neccessity of holding General elections and having to consort with the rest of us for a couple of weeks they would be delighted.

MP's are out of touch with reality, and 'e-democracy ' only threatens their cosy world.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but I think they do have one 'valid point' in the sense that the web can be a bit like 'phone polls'.

In America, many of the youth did not have 'land lines' so some of their views were difficult to reach by pollsters. Of course, they can adjust for this.

But some older people may not be using the web as much, so some of their concerns may not be factored in.

And let us be honest, the internet can attract the rabid right wing loonies from the Daily Mail, just as it attracts the anti-Israeli brigade.

It does tend to polarise opinion, because such is the nature of the debate.

You don't see many debates on the web about parking and the drains as they just ain't sexy enough for the medium.

It is not the panacea to local or national democracy, and as the EU has shown, they are quite capable of ignoring it all together.

Anonymous said...

Ms Moran is my MP and is utterly hopeless. But she does have very high parliamentary expenses!
Claims to live in the next road to me but when I raised an issue with her some years ago she said she couldn't help because I was not in her constituency. doh!
Claims to have fought to keep Vauxhall in Luton, claims to support the football club and claims to fight for our post offices. Failed on them all.
If we had any sort of opposition she would be out at the next election - and a more deserving case of unemployment is difficult to imagine

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with them at all. I, personally have never used the internet in my life and wouldn't know a blog if it came up and introduced itself.

Anonymous said...

J should have added that she doesn't have an open mind - but always an open mouth!

Anonymous said...

anon@10.24 - you can see argument about 'parking and drains' on local blogs.

We have a local version of Agenda 21 in our area, which attracts a wide variety of lively comment, actual facts and argument about green issues, council activities and community matters (which range from business in local shops to asking for Poppy Day volunteers).

Stephen Glenn said...

*scratches head*

Having spent some time (whilst campaigning) in recent weeks with both Mr Rennie and the MSP with whom he shares an office your description of why they don't blog is not what I gathered first hand. Time was the main reason both gave me, before I pointed out that was not necessarily the case.

Both also have Facebook profile and have run campaigns through that medium. So hardly lacking any other Web presence.

But then Willie Rennie is also very much a hands on MP even holding regular surgeries in a local supermarket as well as more conventional locations.

BOF2BS said...

Refer them to this site for some enlightenement:

Required reading for all UK politicos I suggest

Anonymous said...

"He didn't fancy blogging in case he said something against the party line."


That's enough to damn him.

(WV=mulabed. I say again, these are not randomly chosen letters they are an etymological ink-blot test)

John Pickworth said...

Just to echo what others have said above...

We're finding this heads in the sand attitude quite common from MP's of late - hence my recent usage of the term 'Ostrich' when mentioning the infamous Tom Harris.

And its not just via online communication. I was completely ignored by my former MP for 3 YEARS! Having written numerous letters concerning the issue of ID Cards, she never once replied and then voted for the scheme saying it was highly popular locally!

Its been really difficult to communicate with any MP of late and those that do respond tend to launch into their particular 'pet issue' regardless of whether it's yours too or even relevent to the one you're trying to raise with them.

I really believe MPs are trying to shut us out of the political process. They NEVER give straight answers via the media these days - most often not even between themselves either. If you write or call, they duck the issue or simply ignore you fullstop. And now we're seeing them avoid any online engagement with the public too. Worse, they shut down their blogs, label us internet crazies, Daily Mail letter writers or members of rival parties (which most of us are not).

But you know what? The online world shouldn't be under-estimated.

While an MP might choose to absent themselves from the discussions of the ordinary public... we are continuing our conversations without them. Very quickly (and I'd argue its happened already) the MPs are the ones out of touch with the mood of the people. We've moved on, we're occupied with a whole new bunch of issues while it seems the MPs are still fighting over the ones from 2 or 3 years ago.

Come the election, an awful lot of MPs (on both sides) are in for a huge shock. We might be a ragtag bag of whinging Brits but the political oxygen is increasingly ebbing our way... and each day growing numbers of frustrated people are discovering the only way to have their voices heard is online (via the blogs, the newspaper user comments or special interest sites etc).

If the politicians don't want to be left in a vacuum they'd better get their acts together and fast.

Anonymous said...

I could have sworn you were wearing a grey suit! I clearly need to pay more attention to these things.

I think though that you are being unfair to the MPs - they both emphasised that they are committed to communicating with their constituents. Perhaps they feel the risks vs benefits are too high when communicating via blogs, which lets face it are not ideal for reaching a geographically bounded community.

I'll take Stephen's word for it that Willie Rennie knows what he's doing.

Finally - a question: do you feel that Tom Harris's little blogging fiasco earlier this year had nothing to do with his downfall? Won't ambitious (would be) MPs be more cautious in the future?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't underestimate the importance of "outreach"; for women in this position, the day you tell someone can be the day your life starts to change.

I went through this myself. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know in my case that I had to take a step back emotionally from the situation before I was able to actually leave physically. Until you involve someone else, you risk taking in all the negative messages fed to you with nothing to mediate them. It can affect your confidence, your ability to plan anything ahead. This then makes you more vulnerable to further abuse.

Also, the men that do this can be very convincing to the outside world. I know my former partner missed out on being President of the Student's Union by just a handful of votes, was a member of his political party and had lots of ambitions and time for everyone.
He played the piano, was kind to his mother and to animals. I was lucky because I was close to my family and they absolutely believed in me, but not everyone is so lucky and those outreach programmes could just save a life. They maybe already have.

It's so easy for politicians to knock out press releases. It's not always easy for them to open their hearts.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to be postive and sing the praises of Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley (Yorkshire). He's not my MP, as unfortunatley I'm unrepresented by a Labourite, so I've adopted Philip, and he is quite happy to listen to my views and represent them, and we mostly do it electronically.

A few weeks ago he asked a good question of Brown at PMQ at 12.30pm. By 12.45pm I'd seen it on the CoffeeHouse blog. I sent him an email of congratualations, by 1.30pm he replied.

Now that is what I call responsive democracy!!

Anonymous said...

It's not just MP's who don't like us voicing our opinion.

In the culture section of last sunday's Times AA Gill was singing the praises of Brand and Ross. He ended with a paragraph that would be worthy of any '18th century middle-class upstart just about to enclose the common land for his own benefit'. I quote:-

"And if you think I'm only writing this because I'm part of the cosy, metropolitan, liberal, intellectual elite, well, of course I am. What else would I be? What do you want? Your papers and TV made by provincial, dranconian, philistne nonentities?

So now we internet savvy people of Britain knows just how we are seen by our 'betters'!!

Yes, AA Gill, that is just what we want - to talk to each other, and to have upstarts like you start to listen to us and join in our conversations.

Jo Christie-Smith said...

Iain, you wrote:

"The only subject she seemed at all interested in was domestic violence and how she could "outreach" to the victims of it. All well and good, but what about the other 99.9% of her constituents"

Well, about 1 women in 4 will be a victim of domestic abuse at some point in her lifetime - so that makes about 12.5% of population affected and so only 87.5% perhaps not interested. Except that those women have children, parents, partners and siblings who will also be interested and so it is a subject that could impact a much much higher proportion of her constituents.

Domestic violence is not the fringe issue that you suggest it is. If it were only 0.1% of the population affected then I'd be a very happy girl!!!

Iain Dale said...

Jo, where does this 12.5% figure come from? If it is true I am both surprised and appalled. I was not seeking to belittle it as an issue, merely to point out that it seemed the only issue which mattered to her and that she was engaging with.

Jo Christie-Smith said...

Well, I originally got the figures from either Amnesty or the Fawcett Society, I forget which but I did find the same data on a home office site.

It also tells how 1 in 6 men will be victim of domestic violence.

Strangely the government definition doesn't seem to include people being beaten by parents or siblings (or children as is sometimes the case).

Whatever, the statistics are dreadful.

I take your point that you weren't seeking to belittle that issue but I think it's as valid an issue to go on about to the exclusion of others as say, the Iraq War, ID cards or some other such topic.

It's the problem with plucking stats out of the air, someone is bound to know the real ones!! :-)

Willie Rennie said...

I'll take Iain's criticism of my use of the internet on the chin. He may be right that I am missing a trick and I will now explore the possibilities more but I must focus on communicating with my constituents rather than the wider political blog world.

It's easy to say that politicians don't listen but I'm not sure any of my critics know if that is how I operate. You'll need to speak to some West Fifers to find that out.

I don't believe I have the time to produce a blog that doesn't land me in it because of some off hand remark written late at night - especially when the media scrutinise every word politicians say.

Let's not assume that the internet is the only worthy form of communication that exists.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that was why I left the conference before the panel session ... Margaret Moran has spent the last few years attacking any attempts at e-democracy that she isn't personally involved in.

OK, so I have been promoting the benefits of blogging for councillors for a long time, and there are now hundreds (if not thousands) of us communicating locally with their electorate in this way. Sadly we tend to be the invisible bloggers to the nation at large because we are writing for a local audience.

Anonymous said...

I asked the question at the conference, because I am irritated that many of the 1997 vintage (like Margaret) who were mad keen e-democ evangelists back then have just not learnt the new ways. She fell into my trap. My observance of IT-aware MPs is that they either realise that to admitting to being a geek is political death, or they lose heart over the years. Even Derek Wyatt is losing his byte. The result is that the number of IT-champions in Parliament never increases.

Anonymous said...

I think there are valid points on both sides here. I wasn't there yesterday, so I'm relying on second hand comments... There are, of course, lots of potential downsides to blogging (my own research suggests that councillor blogging declined in the run up to the 2007 election - mainly due to lack of audience and time), but there are also lots of positives. I wouldn't criticise an elected representative for not blogging. But I would be critical of one who made the decision in ignorance, which I think many are (in spite of the good work of Mary and others). There is also the question of whether blogs are better tools of representation than campaigning, which I'd be interested to get people's perspectives on.

There's been quite a bit of research on all of this now: you will need to have some kind of subscription to access the articles, but I'm sure the authors would be willing to send pre-publication drafts.

Scott Wright (UEA)

Anonymous said...

Further to my regrets that some MPs hide their geekery, I am particularly irritated that Adam Afriyie, supposedly a software millionaire, does not come out of the IT closet.

Particularly as he is the best hope of becoming Britain's Barack Obama, who, we learnt on Tuesday, owed his success to his effective use of the internet.

Pete Wass said...

"her "boobs and shoes". She was indeed wearing a very nice pair of shoes!"

Can we take it from this comment that she doesn't have nice boobs?