Why MP’s should get blogging

Clive Soley gets his inspiration from Baghdad

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There are still many people who do not know what a blog or web log is. I only found out after reading the Baghdad blogger in the Guardian last year. The idea immediately appealed to me as it was an additional way of talking to the public without the media in the middle.

There are now at least four MP’s with web logs and I suspect the number will grow in the next year or two. Soon every MP will be expected to have one. The teenage use of chatrooms is producing an interactive computer literate generation who will expect MP’s and other elected representatives to use this type of communication.

A blog is essentially a meeting room without walls. It enables the blogger to create either a diary or just a sequence of entries which then invite the reader to leave their comments. And comment they do!

That doyen of MP bloggers Tom Watson MP for West Bromwich East and the first to start a blog in Parliament had 41 comments on a recent entry on the availability of guns. I had 14 comments in a constructive discussion on tuition fees in the run up to the recent legislation. It is easier to exchange views on subjects like this then by conventional letter and it has the added advantage of allowing the correspondents to see and comment on other peoples views.

Recently I wrote a Fabian pamphlet on the anniversary of the Iraq war dealing with the new challenge of intervention in failing states and a new role for the UN. This paper is now on my web log and provoked an interesting and, at times, heated exchange.

I also found the site very useful when I challenged News International on sexual harassment at the Sun newspaper. Rupert Murdoch doesn’t answer letters even from MP’s – at least not if they point the finger at his organisation! And, with a few honourable exceptions the media is not too keen on running stories critical of their competitors. But the web log is international and that entry gets a lot of visits.

Similarly with the Daily Mail and their exploitation of the pensioner who was allegedly so poverty stricken she couldn’t pay her council tax. In fact she was withholding payment because she disagreed with European regional policy. I exposed their activities in Parliament and put it on my web log.

Other MP’s are considering whether to start blogging. Apart from the technophobes there are two questions that worry them. “How do you find the time?” is a frequent question. The answer is that it takes little more time then I put in to writing a column for my local paper. That takes about 30 minutes a week and blogging takes me about 90 minutes. But frequently it is writing things that I would need to write anyway. So on tuition fees I was able to refer some correspondents to the site or send them print outs.

I do not know how many people read my column in the local press but I do know that over 500 people per week visit my web log. Tom Watson, who has a lighter and more engaging style then me, gets no less then 160,000 visits per year. That probably means more readers than an article in the Guardian!

The other question which is of more concern to MP’s in seats with small majorities is “Are my constituents reading it or am I just addressing the world population in cyber space?” The answer to this is probably partly dependent on the nature of the constituency. In my West London patch there are links from local magazines and at least two community web sites run for and by local people. A number of people who respond to my entries will flag up that they are constituents.

The reality however, is that you will only get a minority of constituents at this stage but like all else in the emerging technology I think it will grow fast. The value I get from it is the very wide audience and my ability to get my views and arguments across unhindered.

This really does appeal to people. One comment on my Fabian paper started with “What a load of balderdash” and went on in a fairly aggressive argumentative style. But it ended with “…it is privilege for all of us to be able to debate openly…”

That’s why I’m a blogging MP!

Clive Soley MP

April 7, 2004