Who wants to read an MP’s musings?
Politics-by-blogging is a sorry substitute for parliamentary debate.
The Hansard Society, the charity ‘which exists to promote effective parliamentary democracy’, launched its new report Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? amid the setting of its current exhibition ‘House to Home: Bringing Parliament and People Together’ (1). Both projects are attempts at reinvigorating political life and making parliamentary politics count again.
The ‘House to Home’ exhibition is in Westminster Hall in London’s Houses of Parliament, and is intended to ‘bridge the gap between parliament and the people’ (2). This exhibition seems like a theme-park version of parliament. Gaudily coloured props and exhibits sit among a set of video screens, large lettering exhorting visitors to take a greater interest in the workings of parliament, and a miniature reproduction of the benches that face one another in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
But there is little sense of why this matters, in terms of the clashes of political ideas that have brought the parliamentary chamber to life, at least in the past. When an interactive section of the exhibition does start a debate, it looks at ‘the case for and against a ban on smoking in public places’ – which sums up how narrow parliamentary politics has become today (3).
In trying to make parliament seem relevant, ‘House to Home’ seeks to present the institution as a sort of microcosm of the nation’s emotional life, which needs to be broadened out to include us all. The exhibition tells us that ‘politics should involve us – not just intellectually, but also emotionally’. The promotion for the exhibition includes a series of personal portraits, of people from all walks of life, at home, at work or out and about. The aim is for parliament to become more personalised, to involve ‘our individual voices, our own experience’ – and for politics to be ‘something that happens in your home as much as in parliament’ (4).
The Hansard Society also looks to information technology to provide more intimate, personal contacts between the political elite and the public, focusing on weblogs, or ‘blogs’ – websites in diary format – in Political Blogs: Craze or Convention?.
This report acknowledges that political blogs may be an unsuccessful byproduct of ‘evangelical attempts to patch up relations between representatives and constituents in the face of flagging election turnouts’. But it also celebrates the potential of blogs as ‘a form of self-expression or confession’ that ‘takes out the barriers between public and private spaces’ (5).
It is true that blogs occupy an ambiguous space between the public and private spheres. On the one hand, they are publicly available on the internet for strangers to read. On the other, they are associated with intimate, informal, offhand expression, not subject to the same formal expectations as public speaking, journalistic writing or academic writing.
But is this intimate, personal form of expression suitable for politicians? These are our formal representatives, and are generally also representatives of political parties. Because they bear such responsibility, we might expect them to comport themselves differently in public to the way they might in the pub. Rather than reading their offhand musings, wouldn’t it be better to hold them to account more formally in the forum of public debate?
British MPs who run blogs are sensitive to these issues. Speaking at the launch of the report, Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam who runs the blog Political Times, weighed up the pros and cons of political blogs (6). He pointed out that while blogs are easy to use, can have popular appeal, and can attract media attention, they are also time-consuming to run, do not have a specific constituency focus, and may risk one’s reputation.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with politicians going out on a limb sometimes and risking their reputation – it might be nice if they did this more often – but party politics is supposed to involve loyalty to a cause and a set of ideas that are greater than the individual.
Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? seems to encourage MPs to be more chatty and impersonal with people online, rather than just talking about their policies: ‘There is a lot more work to be done in terms of politicians participating in online forums such as the blogosphere, rather than simply putting forward their own opinions for the public to read.’ It sees ‘the blogging ethos of open-mindedness and knowledge-sharing’ as a positive alternative to the ‘world of certainty and tribal loyalty’ that it says politicians inhabit (7).
The personalised communication of a blog is a poor substitute for the collective battle of ideas that has traditionally occurred in parliament. Without a degree of ‘certainty and tribal loyalty’, there can be little coherence or conviction in politics.
The Hansard Society suggests that it is important for the politician to speak personally. US Democrat Howard Dean used his blog to mobilise support in the election for the Democratic nominations, but the blog was run by the Dean campaign team. The Political Blogs report presents this as problematic: ‘The fact that there are bloggers speaking by proxy for others begs the question of whether misinformation, intentional or unintentional, is occurring.’ (8)
Behind these two Hansard Society projects lie a degraded notion of political debate. The report puts forward the argument that information technology can empower those who are essentially too timid to contribute to political discussion otherwise: ‘Blogs lower the threshold of entry to the global debate for traditionally unheard or marginalised voices.’ (9) But politics is about the clash of ideas, not about improving self-esteem. The fairest mechanism for the evaluation of political ideas remains forthright contestation before the court of public opinion.
In an attempt to give visitors a sense of political empowerment, visitors to the ‘House to Home’ exhibition are asked to submit a question to prime minister Tony Blair, and Blair is due to answer a selection of these questions. The report presents such direct communication as superior to conventional electoral representation: ‘If political representation were to become more direct, with the once-every-four-years mandate replaced by an ongoing, conversational relationship between representatives and represented, blogs could become valuable sites of democratic interaction.’ (10)
However, such a ‘conversational relationship’ would not attend to our political demands – after all, politicians aren’t compelled to act on the conversation, and they can pick and choose whom they converse with. Instead, this proposal is a response to our presumed need to feel as though someone in power cares about us.
At the launch of the report, Jonathan Briggs, who runs the political blog re.engage, said he looked forward to the day when parliament’s official website became a blog (11). Neither parliament nor blogs would benefit from such a development. If parliament and blogs have one thing in common, it is that both are in desperate need of some decent ideas before they can be of proper use to anyone.
Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr
State machinery, by Sandy Starr
What’s the big idea?, by Martyn Perks
Blog-standard politics, by Martyn Perks
(1) What we do, on the Hansard Society website
(2) House to Home: Bringing Parliament and People Together (.pdf 1.82 MB), Hansard Society, 12 July 2004, p3
(3) Teachers notes, on the House to Home: Bringing Parliament and People Together website. See Warning: smoking bans can damage the body politic, by Mick Hume; The fag end of radical politics, by Mick Hume
(4) House to Home: Bringing Parliament and People Together (.pdf 1.82 MB), Hansard Society, 12 July 2004, p10-11
(5) Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? (.pdf 447 KB), Ross Ferguson, Milica Howell and Stephen Coleman, Hansard Society, 16 July 2004, p9, 14
(6) See Political Times
(7) Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? (.pdf 447 KB), Ross Ferguson, Milica Howell and Stephen Coleman, Hansard Society, 16 July 2004, p15, 27
(8) Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? (.pdf 447 KB), Ross Ferguson, Milica Howell and Stephen Coleman, Hansard Society, 16 July 2004, p17. See Blog for America; Dean and not heard, by Martyn Perks
(9) Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? (.pdf 447 KB), Ross Ferguson, Milica Howell and Stephen Coleman, Hansard Society, 16 July 2004, p28
(10) Political Blogs: Craze or Convention? (.pdf 447 KB), Ross Ferguson, Milica Howell and Stephen Coleman, Hansard Society, 16 July 2004, p28
(11) See re.engage, and the United Kindom Parliament website