Those with an eye for ‘scandals’ involving Parliamentarians would no doubt have spotted a story shortly after May’s General Election, revealing how MPs had (as the Guardian called it) gone on a “last-minute iPad and iPhone buying spree” and how new MPs were going to be given iPads after the election. And apparently peers are so sensitive about their spending on iPads the House of Lords is blocking the publication of the numbers.
On the plus side, if the report is to be believed, at least some parts of Parliament are embracing new technology.
Yet far more significant than whether a few outgoing MPs did or didn’t go on an iSpree was the release back in January by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. The Commission aimed to investigate ‘the opportunities digital technology can bring for parliamentary democracy in the UK’. However, unlike stories about MPs’ expenses, after an initial flurry of media attention interest in the report died down. Yet two things have happened recently that should prompt those working in and around politics to take another look at the commission’s report.
Since the General Election two members of the Commission have found themselves in new (and influential) roles. Robert Halfon MP now attends Cabinet and Meg Hiller MP has been elected to replace Margaret Hodge as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
So what was in the report and what can we expect more of? While many of the recommendations were not exactly groundbreaking (for example, that there should be more use of infographics) some of what was said does have the potential to shake things up - this included:
- Putting forward questions for ministers via digital platforms;
- Select Committees using social media and online advertising to engage with the electorate;
- Regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall and potentially Parliament itself.
The report also contained examples of where Parliament had taken some tentative steps in this area already - for example #askpickles. Here the House of Commons Local Government Committee used the hashtag #askpickles to gather questions for the then-Secretary of State. One of the questions that was put to the minister was around electronically issuing agenda papers. Small fry, but Pickles cleared the way for this. If we see Mr Halfon and Ms Hiller develop and implement more of these ideas in their new roles, then the average citizen will have new ways to engage in the political process.
However, such reforms have the potential to give Trade Unions, NGOs and single issue campaign groups a new way to assert themselves in the political process. This is because these organisations have sizeable email lists and bases of support on social media giving them the power to steer people to a certain hashtag or email address and put the question they want asked forward. This is also true for the newer, online based, campaigns such as 38 Degrees andChange.org. Let us also not forget the inherent potential within Facebook and Twitter for ‘movements’ to form rapidly. While these are often very short lived with shallow support their supporters may well be persuaded to engage in a Q&A with a minister for example, before they move on to the next ‘Twitter Storm’, celebrity scandal or cat video.
While coalition building is already a regular feature of lobbying the nature of these coalitions will change if parliament opens up in the way mapped out in the report. They will need to focus more on reaching into these organisations ‘grass roots’ and building an engaged supporter base which can be deployed to support other activities. Finally the size of a group’s email list and following on Twitter will become important factors when coalition partners are being sought with those with larger and more active bases of support becoming more sought after.
It remains to be seen what concrete actions and changes will flow from this report and how radical Mr Halfon and Ms Hiller want to be in their respective positions. However, it does show a clear direction of travel and, as we celebrate 750 years since the Simon De Montfort Parliament and 800 years since the Magna Carta, it’s a good reminder of the UK’s tendency towards evolution rather than revolution.
Update - 02/07/2015
Just after I posted this Chris Grayling MP, Leader of the House of Commons, announced the Government's proposals for “English Votes for English Laws”. Under these a “double majority” of English and Welsh MPs will be required for legislation and amendments affecting only England and Wales. To record this double majority votes will be recorded on “tablet computers”. As one commentator has put it, “iPads become part of the constitution”.