In defence of “parliamentary graffiti”

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A new pernicious and – surprise, surprise – anonymous campaign blog in support of scrapping early day motions has been established. Up until now, calls to scrap this system has been restricted to (usually Tory) MPs. Why an ordinary member of the public would want them scrapped is another matter.

If you go and have a peek at the EDM database, you could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to defend. But you would be wrong. EDMs are currently one of the few ways in which backbench MPs can raise issues in Parliament – which means they are one of the few ways in which their constituents can raise issues in Parliament.

As a campaign tool, for both parliamentarians and pressure groups, they are invaluable. On an almost monthly basis you read news reports assessing the likelihood of a backbench rebellion succeeding or failing as a result of how many members have signed the accompanying EDM. They are a key tool for backbenchers to arm themselves against the whips, a way of forming strength in numbers. In order to get private members bill legislation through parliament they are absolutely crucial. The Sustainable Communities Act* would never have become law if 338 MPs – a clear majority – had not signed the accompanying EDM.

Could the system be improved? Of course. For one thing, the current paper-based system is a total waste of money. Parliament could – and should – move towards an electronic system. There is also merit in considering some kind of guillotine rule for EDMs which fail to get enough signatories within a week (for example). The biggest abusers of EDMs are MPs themselves who just can’t resist tabling EDMs about their local football or rugby teams, etc. Yet I have never seen a critic of the system call for it to be reformed, merely scrapped.

Who would benefit from scrapping the system? Party whips whose job would suddenly become much easier. MPs more generally – particularly those dinosaurs who have been taken to task over the past couple of months – whose views would be less open to public scrutiny. Multi-client lobbying companies, who would be able to assert a greater monopoly on who has access to Parliament (currently, voluntary sector organisation facing up against a lobbying firm can at least rely on the public record as a way of monitoring progress of their campaigns and ensuring MPs’ opinions’ can’t waver; without EDMs, the lobbying companies would be the only ones with the resources to monitor this).

So we should be wary of this peevish campaign and question why they are hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Come out come out, wherever you are!

* Interest: I work for Unlock Democracy which was – and remains – one of the main backers of the SCA.

17 thoughts on “In defence of “parliamentary graffiti”

  1. The one thing I worry about is that if EDMs become electronic they will become far, far easier both for MPs to create and for other MPs to sign, which would considerably dilute their effectiveness. Wow, I might actually write a blog post on this…

  2. It is incredibly easy for MPs to create EDMs at the moment – they simply give a scrap of paper with their name on to a clerk. If they have other sponsors, they don’t even need to get their signatures or anything (on the basis that they are too “honorable” to defraud it).

    The complexity of the current system is not at the MPs’ end, it is at the clerks’. And the bulk of the cost lies in the practice of printing out all the EDMs and new signatories each day on paper.

    I would want to see a rule whereby no EDM would go “live” until it has had at least 6 sponsors. That alone would wipe out 90% of the more frivolous EDMs.

  3. Thanks Unity (and to another person who emailed me about Jonathan). To quote Iain Dale’s guide to blogging:

    “In late 2006, he established Crossbench Consulting, a Communications Consultancy, of which he is Managing Director.”

    In other words, a lobbyist with a pecuniary interest in seeing this particular lobbying tool removed so he can justified higher fees.

    I highly recommend that people sign the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency/38 Degrees petition on lobbying transparency by the way.

  4. Just to reinforce the public accountability point James, EDMs are one of the few ways that a constituent can ask an MP to go on the record as publicly supporting an issue. They are also invaluable as a means of getting MPs to think through issues where they may not have a considered opinion. If it is just a letter from a constituent then they can forward it to the relevant government department or sometimes their party leader (usually Tories). Asking an MP to sign an EDM ensures that they as an individual have to support or oppose an issue.

    If the issue is the fact that EDMs aren’t debated why are they not also campaigning to scrap statutory instruments? They are only very rarely debated and have far more impact than EDMs.

  5. It was quite openly him on WATO this afternoon.

    I’ve always wondered what justification Jonathan Shepherd for registering libdemradio.com/ These days, the whois is a little less clear it’s him, but I’m sure when I checked in the past it was him behind it.

  6. Alex – I had a bit of a Twitter conversation with him this afternoon after having listened to the piece where I argued that they need to be reformed, not scrapped and he offered me a guest post slot on the “Scrap EDMs” website to argue my case which I have now done.

    You can read it here. I quote a couple of James’ arguments above too as part of my case.

  7. Really anonymous isnt it. The fact that I was on Radio Four was anonymous. The fact that you can see who is behind it by seeing who has registered the domain so anonymous. Of course its easier to come up with arguments as to who is behind it that address the real issues.

    You mention that a new system would benefit lobbyists? Now lets look at that point.Having worked as an in-house Public Affairs professional in the past I would argue that the Current system actually benefits lobbyists. How many EDMs are from say for example the charitable sector. And if you had ever worked in the sector you would know that charities employ far more campaignerrs and public affairs practitioners than an in-house corporate. I don’t blame them for using the system. I still lthink its a waste of money and achieves nothing.

    James Graham – you are wrong I am not a lobbyist. So lets get that right. My “clients”are Roger Helmer MEP whose blog I update. And Phillip Oppenheim whose blog I run, so you can withdraw your comment on that score.

    When you choose to address the argument the point is made that perhaps smaller campaign groups may suddenly not be able to influence. Yet how do you explain a website that cost £8.99 and one email having been able o gauage MPS opinion and then getting national coverage? Seems more influential than an EDM doesn’t it.

    I also note that you don’t give much of a list to how Early Day Motions have been so influential they have achieved x y or z, you just decide to attackt the campaign and the person behind it.

    Shame on you. I happily included arguments contrary to my view And “Mark Reckons” has done a superb piece that’s been published. Perhaps you would do more to advocate why they are such a great thinh for democracy before attacking me. What is my vested interest. Absolutely nothing.

    My personal preference would be to introduce something that would allow backbenchers to instigate debates once a certain level of support has been reached. It would mean that annything new to replace EDMs would be done electronically – so no printing costs. It would mean a certain level of support – say 50 fellow MPs would be required before anything could be tabled.

    That I suppose doesn’t fit your narrative as to what a shady person I must be, but hey, that’s why I want to change things.

    You may think the status quo is great. I don’t.

  8. @Alex Runswick

    Alex apart from when they sign an EDM and then vote in completely the opposite way if the issue is subject of a debate (usually not because of the EDM I may add).

    Why do so many MPs refuse to sign them these days. They can write to their constituent saying they support the cause of teh constituent but feel signing an EDM has no effect, so won’t sign. Would love to keep them if I though they were effective. But I along with lots of MPs it seems, think reform is the way forward.

  9. Really anonymous isnt it. The fact that I was on Radio Four was anonymous. The fact that you can see who is behind it by seeing who has registered the domain so anonymous. Of course its easier to come up with arguments as to who is behind it that address the real issues.

    This is thoroughly disingenuous. I wrote this article before your Radio Four interview. The website (at the time) had nothing on it about who was running it and I don’t read Tory Radio. I notice you have now amended this. A small victory for transparency.

    You mention that a new system would benefit lobbyists? Now lets look at that point.Having worked as an in-house Public Affairs professional in the past I would argue that the Current system actually benefits lobbyists. How many EDMs are from say for example the charitable sector. And if you had ever worked in the sector you would know that charities employ far more campaignerrs and public affairs practitioners than an in-house corporate. I don’t blame them for using the system. I still lthink its a waste of money and achieves nothing.

    I do work in the sector (if you bothered to read my post you’d see I declare my interests). And yes, charities and voluntary sector organisations do run EDM campaigns. But the successful ones depend on motivating individuals to write to their MPs directly: an EDM and a follow up letter gets you half a dozen supporters at most. I make no excuse for crap campaigns.

    James Graham – you are wrong I am not a lobbyist. So lets get that right. My “clients”are Roger Helmer MEP whose blog I update. And Phillip Oppenheim whose blog I run, so you can withdraw your comment on that score.

    …and Diageo, and Boots and an organisation called Employers Friend.

    When you choose to address the argument the point is made that perhaps smaller campaign groups may suddenly not be able to influence. Yet how do you explain a website that cost £8.99 and one email having been able o gauage MPS opinion and then getting national coverage? Seems more influential than an EDM doesn’t it.

    So what? That’s it. You might as well have done nothing. You call that a strategy?

    No EDM can achieve anything on its own, but it is part of a campaign strategy. It is about building up support.

    I also note that you don’t give much of a list to how Early Day Motions have been so influential they have achieved x y or z, you just decide to attackt the campaign and the person behind it.

    My colleague Ron Bailey has managed to get 25 pieces of legislation on to the statute books in 23 years. In each case the campaign has had EDMs at the centre of it.

    Shame on you. I happily included arguments contrary to my view And “Mark Reckons” has done a superb piece that’s been published. Perhaps you would do more to advocate why they are such a great thinh for democracy before attacking me. What is my vested interest. Absolutely nothing.

    Disingenuous again, and shame on you. Mark’s piece, as he acknowledges in his article, is influenced a lot by this very article. This is classic, after the fact whitewash. You’ve been caught out: admit it.

    My personal preference would be to introduce something that would allow backbenchers to instigate debates once a certain level of support has been reached. It would mean that annything new to replace EDMs would be done electronically – so no printing costs. It would mean a certain level of support – say 50 fellow MPs would be required before anything could be tabled.

    If you’d actually bothered to read the article above, you’d know that is precisely what I’ve proposed. Congratulations on coming on board. But that isn’t a scrap EDMs campaign, that’s a reform EDMs campaign. And you know it. Again, don’t shoot the messenger.

    That I suppose doesn’t fit your narrative as to what a shady person I must be, but hey, that’s why I want to change things.

    Boo. And indeed, hoo.

    You may think the status quo is great. I don’t.

    You think reforming/scrapping EDMS is a great threat to the status quo? FFS. The reason it doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning is that there are literally dozens of more important things to get exercised about. Your party, even the soft and cuddly “new politics” variety as espoused by D. Cameron Esq. is about maintaining the status quo.

    You may think that reforming EDMs challenges the establishment to its very foundations. I don’t.

  10. Jonathan – re Lib Dem Radio. Hmm. My initial cynicism was about a Tory activist sitting on a Lib Dem domain, which seems a little like cybersquatting.

    We already provide a similar service through LibDemVoice.org where we podcast interesting fringe events and comments from conferences around the year, and I am working on making that a more year-round service. Indeed I have a recorder full of as yet unprocessed interviews of Bristol LD campaigners. My travels around the country this summer are fortuitously to LD strongholds, so maybe I will get more.

    I am interested in the technology you use to turn phone calls into MP3s since everything I’ve done to do that is fiddly and a nuisance…

    Alex

  11. @James Graham
    Oh Mark you’ve made my day. Such a jolly fellow aren’t you. I don’t think a campaign on EDMs will challenge the establishment – but it’s a start?

    Wow – I did one piece of work for one individual at the place I used to work (Boots). Must be an evil individual eh! I could ask you how big the lobbying/campaigning team at your organisation is. But that wouldn’t be relevant to the debate – like many of your comments. But hey it’s your blog!

    Of course there are always those who like to sit in their armchairs and moan on the sidelines. You again try to make party political points on something that isn’t party political.

  12. Jonathan, when did I call you evil? I called you a lobbyist.

    How big is the lobbying/campaigning team at Unlock Democracy? Well, we have a total staff team of 11, of which six are directly involved in lobbying and campaigning. Three of those six (including me these days) are part time. You can read our accounts if you’d like: http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/?page_id=144

    In terms of my reference to the Conservatives, your response could have been that you disagree with the party’s timid line on reform. Instead you accuse me of playing party politics, which makes my point for me.

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