Simon Hart is MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.
It has become a modern tradition: the weekly email catch up. Like many MPs, I do it every Saturday morning and, just a couple of weeks into the new Parliament, the inbox is already urging me to vote against a UK seal cull, against changes to the Human Rights Act and either in favour or against the Hunting Act. Such is the regularity of this process that I can now tell pretty well how many I will get and who they will come from – and that, whatever I say and do, they seem unlikely to alter their voting habits.
I have no problem with all this: I quite like a good argument, and positively encourage all forms of contact, despite the cost involved in responding to them all. But it is a fact that upwards of 90 per cent of the emails that come my way are from the same small number of electronic activists who engage, seemingly without always questioning the factual basis of their case, with each and every call to action issued by whichever online campaign platforms they are signed up to. Of course the majority of campaigns have an opposite number and so the emails come in from them as well – doubling the quantity received and becoming a competition of who has the largest email network, rather than who makes the most valid, reasoned, coherent argument for the case in question.
Back in 2010, I had several hundred emails about privatising woodlands – a policy that was not only misrepresented by the lobby groups in question, but which did not even apply in Wales where I am an MP. Some (though not all) of these campaigners spent five years during the last parliament demanding that I change my views on issues that the vast majority of my constituents are well aware I hold. Then they spent the General Election campaign telling me that they were not going to vote for me because of these views. Now that I have been re-elected their response is to send more emails about more issues about which I have been even clearer.
It seems, too, that Labour made the fatal mistake of believing that these online activists in some way represent mainstream public opinion, and ran an election campaign which leaned heavily on their tactics and views. They really seemed to believe that, because a proportion of their core voters will sign a petition or email their MP because a ‘celebrity’ tells them to, it followed that getting lots of ‘celebrities’ to tell people to vote Labour would have a decisive influence on the electorate. The result has thankfully put this claim to bed and with it, with any luck, the whole notion of “celebrity endorsement”.
And for the avoidance of doubt, I am not dismissive or disdainful of passionately held beliefs. My office dealt with over 9,000 enquiries in the last parliament and it is of no relevance to me (or MPs of any Party) whether those seeking our help vote for me or not.
Whether we are new MPs or veterans, we should of course be open to the views of all constituents, but gone are the days when the contents of our inbox, or of an online petition for that matter, were a truthful representation of public opinion in our constituencies as a whole, or a reflection of fact and evidence upon which we should be basing our views – especially when the content and authors are the same week in week out.
A quick glance at the election results support this. There was no discernible difference between the results of candidates (urban or rural) which was attributable either to these campaigns or the views of the individuals themselves.
During the last few years, the issues that have had a lasting impact on me are the ones imparted via a house call, a surgery visit, a handwritten letter – or something equally personal. Some even influenced the way I voted because the thought, passion and effort that had gone into them was so obvious. The next five years will be no different, and the multiple re-sending of standard emails (up to three times a day on one topic or another) is at risk of having a contrary effect.