Email, Lobbying and a new Participatory Democracy

17 May

MPs are receiving increasing amount of email from users of 38 Degrees , a website which provides the ability for members of the public to MPs en masse. The Purple Revolution campaign for Fair Votes made use of this service to let the strength of their feeling be know to Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs  on proportional representation. According to a 38 Degrees blog post they, “sent over 150,000 emails to the Lib Dem MPs as they started weighing up their next move [on who to form a coalition with].”

The emails appear not have have been received in the best of spirits however. One of the most socially-connected (though anti-PR) MPs Tom Watson tweeted :

Thks @38_degrees. Inbox now full. Why didn’t you check to find out the MPs that supported your proposition before spamming us all?

3 days later Watson added :

Hello 38_degrees. Just thought you’d want to know it’s taken me two hours to work out how I’m going to email 1700 progressives en masse ;-)

While I applaud Watson for engaging with the electorate so well on Twitter and understand his frustration at having a sudden deluge of emails, his sentiment is fundamentally misplaced.

At the moment, email is simply the most efficient method for members of the the general public who feel strongly about an issue to register their opinion with those who legislate. It is a method by which people without great wealth or privilege can lobby their representatives in Parliament. Big business can spend millions on lobbying legislators and the civil service to make law conforming with their interests. Such monetary resources are just not available to normal people.

This phenomenon of huge amounts of people emailing MPs goes beyond just a manifestation of the people’s right to lobby their MP in the age of online technology. It is also an attempt to remould the British version of democracy. From the traditional situation where we depend on our representatives to indirectly translate the will of the people into law, we are seeing a shift to one where many want to create a participatory democracy.

Government and MPs need to realise that these emails are not intended as spam but are actually attempts to overcome the barriers which people feel are in place between themselves and their parliamentary representatives. They should either find ways of sincerely including people in public policy formulation or employ systems to extract the feelings from these emails and then act on them.

For their part, 38 Degrees ought to respond to Tom Watson’s charge of spamming by ensuring that its users write their emails in their own words. It should continue to provide bullet points to support the writing of worthwhile emails which aren’t just identikit versions of a message written by the campaign organisers.  MPs need to be lobbied through high-quality, well thought-out emails if the wider public’s views are not to be placed straight into MPs’ spam or trash folders. Indeed to compete with the money and expertise of lobbyists working on behalf of big business, campaign groups need to make sure that MPs have a good reason to read their emails. They will only have that if those emails are highly readable and well-informed.

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