Comment: Keeping MPs’ emails public

Dominic Raab’s attempt to have his email removed from public view sounds trivial, but it has serious implications for internet activism.

By Ian Dunt

Activism takes less time nowadays. Once upon a time you had to go all-out, camping out by nuclear power stations, occupying student facilities, or perhaps just marching to Trafalgar Square. Today, you set up a Facebook page.

As any pub bore will tell you, the internet has changed everything. That goes for political activism as much as the record industry and bookshops. Emails have replaced letters, not just in personal communications or official communication, but also for political movements.

Political organisers, be they presidential campaign strategists or grassroots pressure groups, have long noticed that their causes often have ample public backing but not enough inspiration to action. People may not agree with animal testing or the Afghanistan war, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re prepared to trudge outside in the rain to wave a placard.

The internet changed all that, demanding only one or two clicks of the mouse for activists to demand action from their MP. The latest victim of this trend is Dominic Raab, a new Tory MP with an excellent pre-election record promoting civil liberties. Unfortunately, he is on the wrong side of the debate on this matter, demanding the removal of his email from 38 Degrees, the rather ingenious website which facilitates constituents contacting their MPs with their political views on a variety of topics. After a protracted email exchange he resorted to taking his email off the House of Commons’ website.

“The point is that there are hundreds of campaign groups like yours, and flooding MPs inboxes with pro-forma emails creates an undue administrative burden,” Raab wrote last month. “These emails from your and other lobby groups are becoming a real nuisance. I am easily contactable by constituents, who can write to me at the House of Commons, and readily accessible via surgeries and other public meetings.”

Where to start with these comments? First and foremost, with pedancy, although of a rather important kind. Letters and constituency surgeries alone are an unacceptable communications strategy for an MP, who should be available to constituents no matter how little time they may have. If they are younger than 35 none of them will be sending letters, and Raab would probably be surprised of the number of people above that age-demographic who are of a similar persuasion. In one foul swoop such a restriction on communication shuts out an impressive number of constituents. The surgery is no replacement. This is the resort of those with serious troubles and/or the obsessive. He appears to be shutting himself off from the world, as if the internet never happened, although his approach will presumably change when the next election is upon us.

But of equal interest is the implicit assumption of the comment, that the ease with which the emails are sent somehow denigrates the sender’s opinion. There are few other arguments available to Raab, given that all emails on 38 Degrees come from his constituents, who he, after all, is elected to represent. Raab’s mention of ‘pro-forma’ suggests that these generic emails hold less weight than if someone had settled down to write a personalised copy – one which he would evidently prefer is sent by post.

This is impossible nonsense. The ease with which a task is completed does not reflect on the finished project. We did not start watching TV any less attentively when the remote control was invented. We did not appreciate warmth any less after central heating was invented. This Luddite assumption that those filling out these emails are somehow lesser activists runs against the experience of those who work in the internet. The people visiting the 38 Degrees website will be some of the most politically attuned individuals in his constituency. The fact that they did not dip their fountain pen in ink before sending a letter to him about their views is neither here nor there. People’s tendency to voice their opinion in a manner which requires the least hassle has no bearing on the gravitas of their belief. They will surely visit his surgery if they believe a family member has been the victim of injustice, or to complain of a planning decision which directly affects them, but when it comes to expressing their views on the future of the BBC – one of 38 Degrees’ choice of emails – they are perfectly entitled to make those views known by a generic email, which they have actively searched for, read and sent.

Mr Raab believes he is entitled to request that 38 Degrees stop featuring his email on their website. Perhaps he is technically right, but it does not make it any less of a retrograde move, running against the trend of open politics which prevailed in the wake of the expenses scandal. It is unseemly of him to ask. He should reconsider his argument.

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