Our legislators have taken to the internet like – well, like wallflowers who show every sign of sitting this dance out. Barely 16 per cent of Westminster MPs have their own websites and, although many councillors and Scottish and Welsh elected members are now easily contactable by e-mail, swathes of our democratic life remain not only offline, but difficult to penetrate even by those trusty old tools of telephone and snail mail.
Still, a start has been made in opening out representative government to web users, and some individual representatives and party groups do their bit. Oddly, the Scottish Tories are exemplary; and Roy Beggs, an Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, not renowned for his progressive views, has a fine, informative site at www.roy-beggs.fsnet.co.uk.
Most party political sites are information-rich, rather than polemical. They are mostly adjuncts to the parties’ main efforts at propaganda and public relations. Not many make full use of what the web offers – instant response, for example – although there are some oases, such as the Isle of Wight Conservative Association (www.islandtories.org.uk).
In her extensive study of “postmodern” political communication (A Virtuous Circle, Cambridge University Press), Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard, knocks down the theory that the net will “mobilise” groups of people currently excluded from democratic participation. It turns out to be a great way for those already interested in politics to find things out, and that conclusion looks like holding in Europe. The implication is that, while the internet is not of itself going to generate votes or support, a politician aiming to maximise his or her clout needs a presence.
It is a puzzle why many elected poli-ticians in Britain seem to disagree. Westminster MPs are always criticising other institutions for their lack of modernity; yet they themselves are antiquarian in their approach to political communi-cation. Parliamentary select committees subject BT and Whitehall departments to rigorous cross-questioning, chastis- ing them for lack of progress in IT. Now look at the House of Commons site (www.parliament.uk). The presentation is dense, the pictures are few and there is not even the rogues gallery that lightens up the Welsh and Scottish legislative sites.
We hear Tony Blair telling children to get online, but his own colleagues are internet-invisible. The non profit-making outfit www.faxyourmp.com offers a way of sending comments to MPs with ease and for free. But they go by fax. Why? Because large numbers of MPs cannot yet be e-mailed. The Public Accounts Committee lambasts government departments for IT failure, yet only a fifth of its members have websites. The chairman, David Davis, the Tory MP for Haltemprice (sometimes tipped as a challenger to William Hague) does not even have an e-mail address listed.
Some MPs, however, are enthusiasts. Sally Keeble, the Labour MP for North-ampton North, has a fully featured site (www.cwd.co.uk/sally.keeble), which includes information about the town and surrounds, delicate rose-pink shading to the “more about me” material, and dynamic links to community, political and commercial sites. This is real internet literacy: in her biography, Keeble has embedded hotlinks to factual sites offering extra information about her political and constituency interests. Another Labour enthusiast is Austin Mitchell (www.austinmitchell.co.uk), as is Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, one of the few Cabinet ministers with his own site (www.islington.org.uk/labour).
Nigel Evans, the Tory MP for Ribble Valley, stands out among his colleagues for his snazzy www.nigelmp.com. The site invites polled responses on hot issues, and offers a free bottle of House of Commons whisky – personally signed by William Hague – as a reward. This may be naff, but it is also extra accountability: Evans’s views on Europe and so on are on display.
There is no straightforward relationship between use of e-technology and political beliefs. Labour’s self-proclaimed modernisation crusade stops well short of getting its leading lights online. Neither the Prime Minister nor his Downing Street neighbour has a personal website; they exist online only at sites maintained by the Civil Service. The Liberal Democrat spokesman on information technology has no website. But, overall, Lib Dem MPs have a stronger online presence than those of other parties – 42 per cent have their own websites, compared with 12 per cent of Tory MPs and 16 per cent of Labour MPs.
More effort seems to have been made in the post-devolution jurisdictions – at least to get basic data about representa- tives online. The Scottish Parliament (www.scottish.parliament.uk) offers live webcasts of proceedings – why on earth can’t the Commons? – and uniform information about its members in a uniform format offering pictures and biographical material. The parliament offers its members training and hand-holding on IT.
The site www.wales.gov.uk offers a generic internet contact service for members of the Welsh Assembly, who are all pictured with standardised biog-raphies. Few of them have sites of their own. Five of Plaid Cymru’s 16 assembly members have sites. Staff at Plaid’s headquarters say that people do get to know about the party through its website (www.plaidcymru.org), but there are no plans to allow them to join online.
“For us, it has not superseded traditional forms of communication.” It is a judgement that most parties would share.
David Walker’s book Did Things Get Better? An audit of Labour’s successes and failures, with Polly Toynbee, will be published by Penguin in February (£6.99)