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 â€œI have tried to make it possible for you to add your own viewsâ€ – 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?