There is no especially good reason that TheyWorkForYou, the website which monitors how MPs vote, should be thrust in the spotlight after a Member of Parliament is murdered in what looks like an act of Islamist-inspired terrorism.
But we seem to have made a collective decision to talk about online abuse instead, and thus the question of simplistic tools getting misused to drum up public anger against MPs has arisen.
That the model employed by TWFY has some quite fundamental problems isn’t a new realisation. As this article from 2019 explores, the principle challenge is that in a bid to be simple and accessible, it risks offering a fundamentally misleading picture of MPs’ records and their political significance.
Some issues are so generally accepted that votes are only held on subjects that are either contentious or only tangentially related. There is also the basic question of the parliamentary whip. It fails to account for political activity outwith the division lobbies, and so on.
The obvious cry is ‘more context’. But by the time you have added sufficient context to paint a more accurate picture, you probably don’t have a simple, immediately accessible dashboard anymore. Instead you have a basic primer on Parliament and British politics, which is undoubtedly helpful but quite a different product.
League tables work when you are assessing an appropriate metric. Since mere participation is not actually an adequate metric for assessing an MP’s political activity, we should not be surprised that TWFY doesn’t really work for anyone.
But there is another downside to TWFY which seems to have been mentioned less often, but which any number of parliamentary staffers can attest to: it distorts the parliamentary activity of MPs.
Being able to say that you’re “one of the most active MPs” is a handy thing to be able to put in your campaign literature. And thus, some MPs at least make a concerted effort to up their activity in the House of Commons with the participation statistics uppermost in mind. This can only contribute, alongside other modern evils such as strict programming of debate time, to the phenomenon of MPs appearing in the Chamber, asking their question, and then leaving.
Just as with the installation of cameras, which has led to MPs making speeches intended primarily for their own social media streams or the news, observation is not a neutral act. It acts upon the institution observed, and in ways that are not always beneficial. We sometimes encounter this debate in the context of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on government decision-making, but it applies here too.
Scrutiny is not an unalloyed good. In any given instance it may be better that, if it cannot be done properly, it is not done at all.