the political obituaries of 2012 are published — as they soon will be — they
will probably devote several lines to Parliamentary power. This has, after all,
been a year of backbench ascendancy. Prominent rebellions, such as that over
Lords reform, have slowed the course of Government policy. Parliamentary
committees, such as the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, have had
their exploits and exegeses sprayed across the front pages. Names such as
Carswell, Farron and Hodge have punctuated the airwaves.
forces behind this tidal swell in backbench activism have been discussed before
and predate this year: thanks to collapsing trust in politics, and to the
restrictions on political patronage imposed by coalition government, MPs are
increasingly looking to their constituents rather than to their party
leaderships, etc, etc. But there’s still one combined cause-and-effect that the
reviews of the year might neglect. And that’s the proper emergence of the Multi
Mass Media MP.
it’s Nadine Dorries’ appearance on I’m A
Celebrity…, Robert Halfon’s smart, Internet-led campaigns on fuel duty and
now the 10p tax rate, or the rise and rise of Michael Fabricant on Twitter,
backbenchers are increasingly using new methods to communicate with voters. And
even the most front-placed of frontbenchers is at it, too. When David Cameron
joined Twitter in October it was another indication of this new symbiosis. The
spreading reach of the media, and particularly of the social media, has been
latched on to by politicians who are keen to spread their own reach as well.
it’s not just Conservative MPs, either. Like him or not, Labour’s Tom Watson is
already a classic example of an MMMMP. His pursuit of Rupert Murdoch this year
has run across thousands of Tweets, the pages of a book, a blog, newspaper
interviews, and the televised proceedings of select committee meetings. The
only surprise is that there hasn’t been a charity single — yet.
shouldn’t, of course, get too carried away. From printing presses to cathode
ray tubes, politicians have always used the tools available to them at the time.
And even the latest tools have their limitations. At an event organised by
ConservativeHome during the last party conference, a number of Web-dextrous MPs
made the point that Facebook and Twitter, while extremely useful in themselves,
are not a full substitute for older methods, such as actually meeting voters on
the street. A handshake still counts far more than a “Like”.
at the same time, the Likes are adding up to something significant. Whereas an
MP may once have had to wait until the next surgery session to directly address
constituents’ queries and concerns, much can now be done with 140 characters.
Whereas he or she may have struggled, across hours of parliamentary debate, to start
a political campaign, now it takes little more than a Facebook page. A
backbencher can shoot from local to national prominence in an instant — and it
doesn’t even require a sex scandal.
this immediacy matters in other ways, too. I’m just as struck by Zac
Goldsmith’s recent Twitter attack on the Government as I was a few weeks
ago. “Anyone have any idea at all where the
Govt stands on Airports, Recall, EU, Energy policy, Environment?” he asked of
his followers. “Me neither,” came the punch line. Truly, MPs can now broadcast
their thoughts as soon as they have them. The space for control from above is
are positive developments, on the whole, but this doesn’t mean that there are no
lessons to be learnt, nor concerns to be considered. For instance, MPs ought to
remember that touch-button prominence is not the same thing as a cause. They
need to do much more to make a real difference for voters. This is where Robert
Halfon has been so effective. His recent campaigns have — as my colleague Matthew
Barrett has pointed
out — stretched from the Internet to the mean corridors of Parliament
itself. He is fighting for national policies based on the concerns of his
constituents, and winning.
then there are there is the party hierarchy, all the way from the whips to the
leadership. For many of them, the idea of backbenchers rampaging around social
networks is like the monster in the cupboard: it will make them feel
uncomfortable and they’ll wish if wasn’t there. But they cannot ignore it,
particularly as these trends will crescendo all the way through the next
election campaign. Indeed, it’s telling that Australia’s Liberal Party has —
contra its name — just encouraged its MPs to close
their social media accounts. This is the wrong approach, I think, but it
captures the basic choice facing party leaderships: to encourage these forces
or to oppose them.
I suspect those with the most to learn will be the media themselves, which
includes myself. We rightly complain about anodyne, centrally-controlled
parties, but then pounce on even the tiniest squeak of internal difference
between their Parliamentarians. Yet, now that those differences are more likely
to emerge, the question becomes more urgent: are they simply a sign of
breakdown, or are they part of a more open, more effervescent democracy? There
is no catch-all answer to this. But, at the very least, let’s give MMMMPs a