MPs: incumbancy and miscommunication

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I got not one but four annual reports in the post today by my MP Andrew Dismore, with the promise of a basketful of others if I can claim to be jewish, chinese, tamil, cypriot and a bunch of other ethnic communities (Labour corporatism is alive and well).

In fairness to him, his reports are quite comprehensive and, as he is not shy in emphasising (not that I can see any of his constituents caring), he has eschewed the glossy-photo-zero-content approach that MPs of all parties frequently adopt. But it does raise the issue of the MPs’ Communications Allowance, introduced last year, and whether it is a good use of taxpayers money.

There have been two other examples of this allowance being spent which have got me thinking. The first is the Emily Thornberry debacle which I highlighted yesterday. The second is Peter Hain’s website which Mark Pack was having some fun with on Lib Dem Voice. All three of these examples are Labour, but I’m really not making a party political point here.

Firstly, La Thornberry has been forced to repay the Serjeant-at-Arms for the cost of the stationery (sic) she used. But those funds could come straight out of the Communications Allowance. That is certainly inconvenient, but it is hardly a major punishment for abusing the system and getting caught. Learning this, most MPs will learn the lesson that they might as well try it on. Even if they only get away with it 50% of the time it will still be worth it so long as they manage their Communications Allowance carefully.

Secondly, Hain. Back when Jack Straw was making the case for the Allowance, he argued that it would be necessary in order to enable MPs to better communicate with their constituents online. That seemed bogus at the time, and Hain’s website demonstrates what nonsense it was. It has much less functionality than the average Blogger account, and yet he boasted that “I have tried to make it possible for you to add your own views” – a feature which amounted to a facility allowing visitors to send him an email. Some web designer has been paid what one guesses must be a tidy sum for coming up with this fairly useless website at taxpayers, all in the name of “improving communications”. If Hain had been forced to use MySpace, for free, he’d have ended up communicating with more constituents (a point which Adrian Sanders proves every day).

Thirdly, back to Dismore. While his report is fine per se, it does epitomise everything that we always feared the Communications Allowance would be used for. It is incumbency protection, pure and simple. It enables the MP to issue a report to constituents completely on their terms and unfiltered by the media. You can be sure that if Dismore felt the glossy-photo-zero-content approach would have been better for votes, he’d have adopted it unapologetically.

Whenever you mention this fact, MPs, especially Labour MPs, start screaming “Michael Ashcroft! Michael Ashcroft!” I would personally be happy to cap all major donors like this – and limit trade union funding as well – but I have no problem in principle with political parties using donations from individuals for campaigning. I also accept that there is nothing wrong in principle with MPs having regular ways to communicate with their constituents. But just as we don’t allow a government minister to make a statement to the Commons without the opposition having a right to reply, shouldn’t we allow political rivals in constituencies to reply when MPs issue their reports?

Here’s my proposed solution. Scrap the Communications Allowance completely. Instead, twice a year the local Elections Officer will preside over the sending out of an MP’s report. Not dissimilar to the information packs that get sent out for mayoral elections, the MP would have, say 4 pages in this report completely under his/her control in which to make his report, followed by another 4 pages that the party which came second could use to respond (and yes, that would probably involve promoting their candidate!), followed by 2 pages each for the parties that came 3rd and 4th respectively. Parties would of course be free to include things like membership forms and links to their websites for more information. The Elections Officer could use the pack to include other things such as the recent election results and the electoral registration canvass (which they have to send out anyway).

There would be several advantages to this. Firstly, if the MP just produced a content free puff piece, his rivals would be able to make that point in no uncertain terms. Secondly, coming second, third and fourth in an election would matter, which would (marginally I admit) encourage more competition. Thirdly, it would be relatively cheap, especially if it could be incorporated with existing commitments such as the canvass. Fourthly, the money wouldn’t go to parties directly and the cost would thus be equitable on a per-capita basis – one of the big problems with other systems of party funding, particularly the money-per-vote system recommended by Hayden Phillips, is that parties can target that money and thus use it to exaggerate the already considerable biases in the system.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “MPs: incumbancy and miscommunication

  1. Very interesting ideas, though with the attention span of the busy member of the public these days having less pages could be more benefitial 😉 All in all, the order in which they are presented is as much of an advantage for “coming first” with such time consious individuals in mind. All in all though I definitely agree!

  2. I think this would be useful, but I think that there should be a minimum proportion of the vote needed to get in the booklet – we don’t want to be giving space to people who lost their deposit, for example. Last time round the fourth placed candidate got 657 votes in Kingston and Surbiton. I don’t think this is uncommon.

  3. Lee, the page count I really just plucked out of the air but for what its worth the rationale was that four sides of A4 – a double sided A3 leaflet – was the size of a typical MP’s constituency report (at least from what I’ve seen). As it happens, my MP just sent me 8 sides of A4 but he could have fitted the content into half the space if it had been typeset with any imagination.

    As for what the MPs and their rivals do with the space is up to them. I would guess that parties would do their best to combine content with getting their message across. Competition would be intense.

    Tim, you are absolutely correct and if I hadn’t had one foot out of the door when I was struggling to finish the post I would have covered this. The number I was playing with was something like 10% of the popular vote. That would relatively tough for a fourth placed candidate to achieve but would give them an incentive to campaign nonetheless. I would guess that a significant number of reports would end up having contributions from three parties.

  4. Sadly your proposal completely misses the problem, by using your suggestion communications automatically become campaigning material rather than an objective report – the problem would be worse, not better.

  5. “anon”, I didn’t miss that point I simply reject it completely. To suggest that the current system results in objective reports and that it is better to give MPs a free rein than allow a right of reply is simply laughable.

    There is no such thing as an “objective” report. If humans were capable of objectivity we’d have no need for the checks and balances that are necessary in any functioning democracy. It’s better to recognise that than to quest for objectivity and create a system which either uses rather crass minimal rules to achieve them (as at present) or some bizarre Byzantine system which would almost certainly render reports unreadable and of no interest to constituents whatsoever.

    MPs are politicians performing political roles. Deal with it.

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