The bloggers of Westminster

Gavin Sheridan and Tom Wilson have a cautionary tale for MPs who don't keep up with technology

MPs sometimes rank alongside high court judges when it comes to awareness of the world of yoof culture and tech-speak. One judge was renowned for asking "Who is Gazza?", and it is easy to imagine many MPs asking: "What is blogging?"

So what is it? Short for web-logging, a blog is an online diary posted on a web- site and has the advantage that it can be updated by the blogging MP, and accessed by the public, at any time. A huge gulf separates the lives of voters and their elected representatives, and blogging is a powerful way of closing the gap. In an age of press secretaries and spin, blogging can be a direct line to what your MP is thinking and doing. It is like a reality-TV window into his or her life.

The first blogging MP was Tom Watson, the Labour member for West Bromwich East. He updates his blog several times a day and covers issues ranging from local politics to goings-on in Westminster. Even his parents read his weblog. Watson says other MPs approach him wanting to know "a bit more about that weblog".

"I got into weblogs," says Watson, "because, like most MPs, I had one of those dreadful, static websites. I'd get on a platform, say the party line and put up a big photograph of myself with my phone number that said 'talk to me'. Nobody did. Nobody ever does. Because it's very, very boring."

He finds the weblog liberating; he says it allows his writing to be both "light and serious". He now has more than 500 visitors a day, including lobby journalists, reporters from his constituency, and local people seeking help on local issues.

Type "Labour MP" into the Google search engine and the top result won't be Tony Blair, or any other well-known MP, but Tom Watson, the backbencher with a blog.

Other MPs who now have weblogs include Clive Soley (Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush), who started blogging in October; Austin Mitchell (Labour, Great Grimsby); and Richard Allan (Lib Dem, Sheffield Hallam). No Conservatives, it seems, are yet too interested in the new medium.

But what about Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for South Suffolk? That's a long story, which goes back to the campaign to try and persuade Blair to follow almost every other western leader and set up an e-mail address. Tim Ireland, a net guru who worked on the development of Tesco's websites, spearheaded the campaign and, to illustrate the power of e-mail, set up tony-blair@prime-minister.co.uk.

He e-mailed MPs from the site with requests for "suggestions for babies' names". Many MPs replied and much hilarity ensued.

Yeo then set up a less believable address - rthontonyblairmp@hotmail.com. Ireland politely asked that his group be credited with the original idea, but Yeo failed to respond. In revenge, the mischievous Ireland then set up a weblog for Yeo. Updated with remarkable regularity, it is meticulously cross-referenced, reporting Yeo's every mention in the media. The result is that Yeo appears to have a more impressive web presence than almost any other politician. A fawning tribute to "the world's greatest living statesman", tim-yeo.blogspot.com is maintained by an "obsessive fan" and looks forward to a modern Tory Britain where "single lesbian mothers are shipped to the colonies by intercontinental moving walkways". Type "Tim Yeo" into a search engine and, sadly for the MP, this spoof is the first thing that appears.

So will we see more blogs from MPs? Even in this age of "big conversations", the party whips are thought to be none too keen on MPs expressing unregulated individual views. But the lesson of the Yeo affair is surely that MPs would be best advised to start blogging before someone else does it for them.

For Tom Watson's weblog, go to www.tom-watson.co.uk

For Richard Allan, go to www.sheffieldhallam.org.uk/blog

If you want to e-mail Tony Blair, go to www.number-10.gov.uk/output/ page821.asp