As blogs become more powerful and parties adapt to the web, will the voice of the individual MP become drowned out? Perhaps – but is that not the situation already? Many people, to be brutally honest, would not even recognise their own MP, let alone any other figures from the back, or even the front, benches.
But in fact, the internet could offer MPs an unmatched opportunity to create a niche for themselves, and to re-empower local politics. One of the more enlightened Parliamentarians told me how he had amassed an email list of 6,000 voters. This might not sound like much compared to the mega-lists used by the campaigns in America, but in this case it represents one in 10 of his constituents. Unlike with a traditional mailshot, this MP does not have to pay hefty printing costs to reach his constituents – he writes out a message, which can be extensively personalised, and clicks on a button. Nor is he simply bragging about his accomplishments: he is asking his constituents for their views about issues that affect them, drawing them into conversations rather than hectoring them. (Of course, this requires careful judgement, and not just of tone: “In the world of spam, people don’t want unsolicited political emails any more than they want Viagra adverts,” says Steve Webb, Lib Dem MP for Northavon and online evangelist.)
Yet for motivated MPs, email lists are only the start. Webb also reaches his constituents via text message, Facebook and MySpace. Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, has his own YouTube channel, and a discussion forum that attracts 100,000 page views a month. Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, write lively blogs. Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent South, has an annotated Google Map on her homepage to update constituents on her schedule.
Good campaigning MPs, in other words, realise that there is more
than one way to reach out to their constituents. And they will be
rewarded for this: an MP who really masters online communication –
updating their blog regularly, joining and participating in discussion
groups on issues that concern their constituents – will have a far more
significant impact than one who merely writes very good press releases,
whereas one who sets up a desultory website and a Facebook account that
remains resolutely friendless will gain nothing at all.
This has one excellent consequence: it insulates good MPs to a far
greater extent from the travails of their party. Most people vote on a
national basis, for or against the Government of the day. But if they
have had contact with the MP, either physically or virtually, they are
far more likely to have formed a personal impression and to vote
accordingly. In other words, MPs can divorce themselves from the image
– and the dogma – of their party. If the Party tries to discipline you,
all the better – nowadays, “anti-politicians” such as Middlesborough
Mayor Ray Mallon (formerly the local chief of police known as
“Robocop”) have a decided advantage over those perceived as the
creatures of the distrusted Westminster parties.
The internet also changes, in a subtle yet fundamental way, the
relationship between MP and voter. As Ed Miliband, now head of the
Cabinet Office, has pointed out, MPs traditionally hear from their
constituents only when they are angry or in need – whether that be by
post, or email, or at a surgery or public meeting. Most normal people
will never contact their MP, due to constraints of time or motivation.
This, naturally, promotes a rather jaundiced view of humanity among our
elected officials. Yet by inhabiting the same online spaces as their
constituents on a day-to-day basis, MPs will interact with them in much
more normal conditions – when the MP is not the privileged voice of
authority, but merely one member of a conversation among many. In doing
so, perhaps they will get a much more realistic idea of what their
constituents actually think. As Joanna Shields, of social networking
site Bebo, has said, how can you legislate for and represent people if
you don’t know what they care about?