Peter Hoskin: 2012 has been the year of the Multi Mass Media MP — all should learn from it
When 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.
The 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.
Whether 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.
We 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”.
But, 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.
And 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 diminishing rapidly.
These 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.
And 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.
But 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 chance.