Should MPs blog?

Politicians are self-seeking, egotistical, lazy good for nothings who only care about self-promotion, getting their snouts in the trough and doing sweet FA for their constituents. They drink themselves into oblivion and eat lavishly all evening, every evening at the House of Commons. In life’s pecking order – they are the bottom of the pile.

Well – that’s what how we lot are variously described. Now – I don’t believe that is an entirely accurate description of the majority of MPs! From what I see of colleagues from all parties in the House of Common – they seem on the whole to be an industrious and committed group of people who work pretty hard. There will be, amongst any group of 650 or so people from any industry a variety of competences and work rates, but many do 70+ hours a week, with work spreading all through the weekend as well as the week.

So – we have a big disconnect between image and reality. There is only one true way to fight back against such an appalling image – and that is to blog! In a time when the media – national, regional or local – give so little time to what politicians are really up to, getting your own account over of what you are doing is often the only option.

I started blogging back in 2003 because I could not bear the ‘you politicians you’re all the same’ type of comment. I’m not the same as that somewhat exaggerated introduction I just gave.

I may not be perfect – but I have committed myself to public service for the last dozen years in one political form or another – and the essential driver for me – as it is for many colleagues across all parties – is to make the world a better place. That can be anything from helping an individual with a problem through to world peace – but the ambition is quite clear.

I wasn’t an MP at the time I started blogging – but I was a local councillor (Haringey) and also on the London Assembly, and I wanted to tell the people who elected me what I was doing and what I was thinking about what was going on in my working world – the world they had elected me to. I wanted to create a relationship with readers of my blog, that would give them an insight not just into how I spent my day on their behalf – but also some sense of me as a human being.

A blog, with its chronological diary like structure and natural invitation to write in a more personal manner, can do that in the way that a website (and I’d already had one for nearly five years at the time I started blogging) isn’t really suited.

Apart from giving those who elected you an inside track on your activities – a blog is also an opportunity for two-way communication if you open it for comments. I didn’t go this for this for the first few years of being a blogger as my previous experience of looking at those comment blogs was that you got the same seven people making comments – generally opponents just being foul. However, the blogging community (which in itself has grown and flourished) itself gently persuaded me to open for comment – and comment can be pretty useful and instructive.

When an issue blows up locally over something really divisive in the community or worrying for the community – posting it on my blog not only gives local people a chance to see what is going on or gives out really relevant information – but the comments can illuminate both sides of an argument – and (crucially) it is a very good way of people seeing and understanding that there are other views. I say “crucially” because – sadly – the general tenor of comments on the internet is one of unswerving certainty – the writer of the comment is absolutely sure they are correct and can’t see how anyone who isn’t a fool could possibly disagree with them – though I am lucky to have acquired a handful of regular commenters on my blog who do engage in more thoughtful expressions of views.

I don’t get a huge amount of comments (nothing like Iain Dale or Political Betting) but enough to be helpful and instructive and most months, even if not most weeks, I learn something new from a comment or pick up a useful lesson in how to be clearer in expressing my views. In addition, when blogging about an issue you also get people contacting you (not in the comments but often privately) with insider information. It is a great source of information and knowledge.

Blogging has become an important communications channel and people all over the country, even world, check in. Certainly the opinion formers and media do – both locally and nationally. And it would be disingenuous to say that isn’t an advantage to those MPs who blog to be accessing that valuable community – but it isn’t and can’t be the main purpose – the media are not stupid.

And neither are my constituents – so you need to be as real and open as is humanly possible without committing political suicide. If MPs are going to simply bleat the party message without any personalisation – then no one will bother to read their blog. It has to be a bit edgy, a bit dangerous politically – and more than anything – be what the MP actually thinks (and actually written by them too!).

I think it is essential to keep writing in bad times as well as good. Difficult or embarrassing issues for the party – I still blog. Difficult or embarrassing issues for myself – I also still blog. Otherwise you are letting down your audience – and also missing out on the chance to put over your side of the story, with your own words and as briefly or as verbosely as you wish.

The main danger for wannabe MP bloggers is what they say on their blogs being taken and used against them. Being the author of hundreds of thousands of words that are published for all to use and abuse is a danger. But you can pick what you say without making it anodyne or 100% tediously on message.

Which brings me to the last benefit – having to assemble my thoughts on my day or on an issue helps me decide exactly where I stand on issues in particular.

So – my advice to MPs generally is to blog. Other MPs have very different types of blogs and an MPs blog can be anything that MP wants it to be. However, if you hate writing – don’t do it. If you think you can get one of your staff to do it – don’t do it. It is something that demands you yourself and constant devotion. Your blog must be the essence of you if you are to succeed. It is a modern medium for modern MPs – at least the brave and the good!

This article originally appeared in Iain Dale’s Guide to Political Blogging in the UK.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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