I wrote in May (twice!) about the problems involved with 38 Degrees offering its users the ability to email MPs without having to write their own message. At the time the Labour MP Tom Watson was complaining about receiving 1700 identical or near-identical emails about PR. Now, a request from Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, that 38 Degrees remove his email address from their system due to being overwhelmed by emails has provoked outrage from the campaign group.
Raab’s argument that it’s impossible to deal with huge amounts of identical emails is completely understandable. Yes, the taxpayer does pay his wages and should be able to expect him to read and reply to correspondence but this correspondence surely has to be original and unique to warrant his attention. Email, when used in the right way, does have the potential to be a highly useful tool for those without the time or money to lobby MPs. But it’s a huge waste of time and money to have Raab and other MPs’ staff trawling through thousands of indistinguishable emails from 38 Degrees users. Indeed, 38 Degrees’ strategy is proving to be counterproductive in that it is obviously forcing MPs to spend more time working out the logistics of reading the emails and less time actually acting on the issues dealt with in the emails.
38 Degrees’ strategy is not beyond reform. I provided 38 Degrees with a reasonably detailed set of proposals for altering their system back in May. I got some positive feedback from their team but they don’t seem to have changed their strategy in the months since then. One proposal was to ensure that emails sent to MPs are written by individuals and not by the campaign organisers. This is easily achievable by not providing a pre-written message for users, automatically ensuring originality. It would of course still be possible to offer a series of style tips and campaign points to assist the website’s users
There are several advantages to writing original emails (and letters) to MPs. They get a reply from the MP and maybe from a government minister. They provide useable evidence of their constituents’ feelings for MPs to cite in parliamentary debate. They also show an individual’s strength of feeling on an issue in a way that adding your name to a message written by the campaign group doesn’t.
The principle of making it easier for the electorate to lobby their MP via email is an excellent one. As I wrote in May,
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.
A reformed 38 Degrees has the potential to open up email as a hugely productive and highly accessible channel of communication between the electorate and its representatives. Emailing your MP is not synonymous with spamming your MP but if MPs feel they are only going to be bombarded with thousands of uniform emails, they are surely unlikely to be receptive to this new dimension of participatory democracy. 38 Degrees badly needs to alter its campaign strategy for the good of its causes and also to ensure that MPs are amenable to the virtues of email-based lobbying in general.