MPs to lose Communications Allowance

Among the Kelly Report’s recommendations for reforming MPs’ expenses and allowances is the abolition of the £10,000 annual Communications Allowance. And quite right too. The report states:

8.20 The Committee believes that effective engagement between an MP and his or her constituents is of the utmost importance, particularly in the wake of recent events. The Committee’s survey research shows that the public expect MPs to keep in touch with what they think is important and to explain their actions and decisions.
8.21 However, with some commendable exceptions, the evidence that the communications allowance has really succeeded in promoting more effective engagement is very limited, even allowing for the relatively short time since its introduction. There is much more evidence of it being used in ways that are essentially party political or have more to do with self-promotion. It is also difficult to police.
8.22 For these reasons, the Committee has concluded that the allowance should be abolished.

It’ll only save between £2m (assuming some of the expenditure finds its way into other allowances) and £5m, a relatively minor sum. But I’m not at all surprised to read:

The Committee has been shown some good examples of the communications allowance being used  to engage with constituents in ways which appear to be both valuable and appropriate. However, the Committee has seen much more evidence of the allowance being used to fund material which is largely self-promotional, containing little information about local issues but a large number of photographs of the MP, or which mainly recites party lines.

I recently received a richly-designed mailing from my own Conservative MP. Lots of colour photos. Official Conservative colours and fonts. It may not have mentioned the word Conservative, but there was no doubt which party it came from. If it’s the last one I receive… actually, let me rephrase that. If it’s the last one I pay for myself, I won’t be sorry.
The lesson here, surely, is that you can’t sensibly separate party politics and Westminster business. I’m glad the Committee recognises this. As I’ve written here before (eg around McBride), the implications of such a conclusion go well beyond the few million quid we’ll all save.
PS: The Committee also appears to have added a new definition of greater London, based on a ‘reasonable commuting distance’. It calls for the new independent regulator to draw up a list of constituencies to add to those which meet the current rule: ‘constituencies wholly within 20 miles of Westminster’. The BBC specifically names Reigate, Slough, Runnymede and Weighbridge, St Albans, Welwyn and Hatfield, Epping Forest, Sevenoaks, Maidenhead, Broxbourne, Mole Valley, Windsor and Dartford.

No awards for MPs' websites this year

bcsawardBad news for anyone who’s just put a massive amount of work into an innovative, cutting-edge website for an MP. (Ahem.) I’ve received confirmation from the British Computer Society – oops, sorry, ‘BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT’ – that their annual awards recognising the best websites by Members of Parliament aren’t quite as ‘annual’ as the label might suggest.
I noticed that the new BCS website seemed to be downplaying the info on their MP Website Awards – and emailed to ask if it was still happening this year. The response – quite telling in its own way – came back:

The decision was taken earlier this year not to hold the competition this year. We decided that would give MPs time to have another look at their websites as, while some had really made efforts to improve their sites as a result of our first year competition, a significant proportion had not. BCS is still very much interested in the competition and we hope we can take it forward in the future.

A pity. But then again, I suppose those websites will be facing the ultimate test of their effectiveness – with their constituents in a general election – next spring.

Creative Commons: 3 MPs on blogging

A shock conclusion emerges from the Hansard Society’s latest research into MPs’ use of new-fangled technology: they are normal people. Well, ‘kind of normal-ish’, Labour’s Tom Harris clarifies. We’re here at Microsoft’s relatively new London offices to hear from three MPs, one from each of the main parties, on what they put in, and what they get out of blogging.
As things kick off, I’m feeling mildly subversive. Partly because I’m using a Linux laptop on Microsoft’s patch. But mainly because I’m the only person in a room of 50, here to talk about technological matters, with a laptop in front of them.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell is first up: he’s in a rush off. He makes, on the face of it, some provocative statements. Technology is ‘having a transformative effect on the disadvantaged’, he says, citing a specific example of local parents of special needs kids, who got information from similar support groups around the country, and used it to take him and the local authority to task. Westminster will need to adopt open source politics, he says, or new entrants will take market share; and it will ultimately lead, he suggests, to more grown-up politics. And with that, he makes the dash up Victoria Street to obey a three line whip. To be fair though, he did blog it up before I did.
Next it’s LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone: a blogger since 2003, but – she insists – she’s so not a geek. For her, it’s a way to prove she isn’t ‘lazy’ like ‘all the rest’; she extols the blog’s value in local campaigning. ‘I pay no mind to the dangers of blogging,’ she says – although, she admits, she does have someone check her stuff for anything ‘politically suicidal’.
Finally, at the top table anyway, it’s Tom Harris – who, he reminds us (to my own surprise), has been blogging less than a year. Straight away, he confronts the ‘received wisdom’ that he lost his ministerial job because of his blog: he genuinely doesn’t know if that’s true, and he hopes it isn’t a signal that ministers shouldn’t blog (or at least, shouldn’t be worth reading). He rejects suggestions that he’s some kind of maverick – in fact, he says, he takes ‘the party line’ very seriously, and assures us you won’t find much in his archives that deviates from it.
He started blogging as an outlet for the opinions which didn’t otherwise get a platform; and as a conscious effort to balance out the right-leaning dominance of the ‘blogscape’. As a former journalist, he finds the writing very easy: but interestingly, he reveals that he spends more time moderating comments than writing posts. (Andy Williamson tells us the majority of MPs’ ‘blogs’ don’t accept comments, incidentally. Hmm.)
Several times, particularly in the concluding Q&A, Tom speaks in favour of a liberal, almost anarchic position. It’s probably inevitable, he says, that every candidate at a forthcoming election will have a blog; it’ll be impossible for the parties to control centrally – ‘and that’s great’. He has a bit of a dig at ‘an unnamed individual’ displaying control-freak tendencies – but doesn’t name him. Whoever could he have meant?
I’m struck by Tom’s and Lynne’s differing routes into blogging. Lynne isn’t being too self-deprecating when she talks down her technical skills; but she’s astute enough to see the value in it all, and is surrounding herself with people whose skills complement hers. It makes her such an interesting appointment to head up the LibDems’ online efforts: she’s a campaigner at heart, and she’ll ensure that the party doesn’t get carried away with tech for tech’s sake.
Tom meanwhile comes across as ‘one of us’. Over a glass of wine afterwards, he expands a bit on the control freakery, naming a couple of names which I won’t repeat here. He isn’t too bothered how many of his blog’s readers are local constituents. Even if his blog cost him his ministerial job, I don’t hear any regret in his voice when he talks about it. He’s blogging for exactly the same reasons I do.
I leave feeling we’re in quite a happy position just now. Those MPs who are blogging (properly) are doing it because they want to, and/or because they want to get something constructive from it. We haven’t yet reached the point where all candidates need to be seen to do it – as, say, with tedious printed constituency newsletters. But there were signs tonight that it’s starting to happen… and that, fundamentally, is a bad thing.

Reason to be miserable

Thanks to SkyI can’t make my mind up about the media attention drawn by Labour MP, and junior transport minister Tom Harris, for comments on his blog. Or more accurately, by the reproduction of those comments on the front of the Daily Mail.
On the one hand, I’m quite pleased that the word ‘blog’ barely comes into it. The Mail story doesn’t use the b-word until its final few paragraphs. Blogging is a fact of life, unremarkable in itself. That’s a good thing.
But the Mail piece misses the very point about it being on a blog. The rules of engagement explicitly allow for the personal and provocative. Stirring up (hopefully reasonable) argument is precisely the point. And in fact, if you look at the comments on the item in question, that’s precisely what he did.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of the story is the fact that the debate is continuing on Harris’s blog – with numerous people now writing ‘I heard you on the TV/radio this morning, came to check out exactly what you’d said, and here’s what I think…’
Now let’s be realistic: it’s the Mail. They have an editorial line, based primarily around ‘hell’ and ‘handcart’, and this story has been squeezed forcibly into it. They do quote the caveats from Harris’s original piece, but only having discarded them initially. They make no attempt to tackle Harris’s underlying point about long-term improvement vs short-term adversity. They ignore some of his incontrovertible points. Oh, and their round-up of a ‘day of desperate economic news’ fails to mention the rather more upbeat news on retail sales.
As a side note: it was announced yesterday that the Mail’s site is now the most visited among the UK newspapers’ web presences. But only 27.2% of its users were actually in the UK – ‘the lowest share of domestic audience of any of the national newspaper websites that publish ABCe figures.’ If the Mail readers care so much about the UK, why don’t they come and live here?

New report on politics and internet

Provocative stuff from Mick Fealty over at the Telegraph’s Brassneck blog. He highlights a report by the Centre for Policy Studies which suggests that ‘the internet could offer MPs an unmatched opportunity to create a niche for themselves, and to re-empower local politics.’ And echoing the Economist’s point about government in competition, he notes:

The most subtle, but perhaps most powerful, change, will be to the public’s mindset. As we grow used to the instant availability of information online, we will no longer tolerate delay and obfuscation in getting similar information from government. The individual, and not the state, will be the master in the digital age.

A weighty 60-page document landing on your boss’s desk may give you some useful extra leverage, but regular readers of these pages can probably skip the first half: it’s a rather predictable mix of stuff you know already, mostly from across the Atlantic. The good stuff starts at the half-way point: I particularly like the notion of a continuing dialogue between MP and constituents, in good times and bad. As author Robert Colville points 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.

The thrust of the report is undermined, sadly, by the curious formatting issues on the press notice announcing its publication. The link to download the full PDF is at the very bottom, behind an almost undetectable ‘click here’ link.