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Parliament unplugged

The government cannot sing the praises of the internet too highly. But most MPs are off-message when it comes to digital democracy and only a handful are taking advantage of the web to reach their constituents. Patrick Barkham reports

From the Guardian Unlimited Thursday May 13, 1999

Actresses do it, bishops do it, even the royal family does it. But scan the faces of the 80,000 new users who came online every day during 1998 and you won't spot too many British members of parliament.

The government is making admirable noises about the net. Labour's National Grid for Learning aims to kit out every school in the country with the internet. The new University For Industry will enhance internet access in further education, and the Public Library Network will do the same in local libraries.

But most MPs don't seem to want to access the internet - or use it to enhance their own accessibility to their constituents. "The Commons is one of the most unwired places there is," says Labour MP Margaret Moran. "We're still in the era of the quill pen here."

This is the institution where, Labour's Paul Flynn recalls, people visited his office to ogle his exotic fax machine after it was installed barely 12 years ago.

Margaret Moran is trying to create a user-friendly online directory of every MP's website. Of 659 MPs, she's found just 89 with sites, many of which don't work or appear hopelessly primitive.

Plenty of big names are conspicuously website-less. Peter Mandelson's last act as trade secretary was to introduce the Competitive White Paper, which aims to make the UK the premier digital marketplace by 2002 and treble the number of small businesses wired up to it. Now a humble backbencher, Mandelson fails to live up to his billing as wired-up government guru: he lacks a website of any sort.

Nevertheless, a small band of internet-savvy MPs remains resolutely optimistic. "There's a sudden explosion of interest in the internet among MPs now. In five years time all MPs will have websites," says Flynn.

MPs could start by taking lessons from America. A study by the Center for Congressional Studies at American University found that each of the 100 senators has a website, as do 414 out of 435 members of the House of Representatives. All are listed on the official congress site.

"It's the first time we haven't had to ask, 'Is there a web site?' We get to ask how good the sites are. It's a critical step," says Don Goff, the study's senior researcher.

Some US representatives' sites differ from their British counterparts only in that you can purchase the American flag from them. Others are a world apart. Republican representative Bob Barr's massive site, ranked first in the study of Congressional websites, carries an exhaustive set of press releases, speeches and position statements on local and national issues, often with comprehensive links to related sites. He also offers a regular online column, an email updates facility and full transcripts of the regular virtual "town hall meetings" he conducts with the people he represents.

Improving connections with their constituents is exactly what the few online MPs strive for. Tory MP Tim Collins has the slick internet presence you would expect from a former Conservative Director of Communications. His polling booth enables constituents to vote on thorny issues, usefully gauging local opinion. "I don't see it as a national forum," he says. "It's there to be a point of communication between me and my constituents."

Anne Campbell became the first MP with a website nearly five years ago. A third of her "post-bag" now consists of email. The net encourages "much more direct interaction between MPs and constituents", she says. "It enables us to be much more sensitive to what people think and feel."

Labour's Andy Reed says: "In theory nearly all the letters I get from constituents about policy can be answered through the site". As internet use increases, MPs' websites could become "a one-stop shop", as Reed says, which could ease MPs' workload.

But easing the workload is not what this small band of internet-savvy MPs seek. "As with all technological advances, it raises productivity but it also raises the workload," Collins says.

"Some MPs say 'you must be bloody mad to be on email and the internet - there's enough work as it is'," reckons Bob Laxton, Labour MP for Derby North. "But I believe in making myself accessible."

This accessibility comes at a price. "I'm struggling to find someone who'll maintain the site for me," says Laxton, who hopes a local "internet geek" might help. Most MPs pay for their websites from their office allowances, but these don't stretch to maintaining a sophisticated web presence. Paul Flynn attacks the spread of lobbying and "New Sleaze" on his site and, appropriately enough, insists on paying Citypages "the full commercial rate" for its upkeep.

"I'd be quite happy to accept commercial sponsorship," says Laxton. Other Labour MPs have. Local internet provider UUnet helps Anne Campbell fund her site. But she declares the sponsorship in the register of members' interests and the site is updated by her constituency staff. She also relinquishes it during general elections so as not to fall foul of the strict rules on MPs' electoral expenditure.

The online MPs realise that, like their colleagues, many of their constituents don't share their passion for the internet. Unlike their colleagues, their constituents may also lack the ability or facilities to access it. "I'm very conscious of the information rich-information poor gap," declares Flynn, who believes that mass access will occur "when people start shopping on the internet".

The audience may not be a mass one yet - most MPs report modest traffic, although Flynn gets 200 visitors a day - but most are surprised by how diverse it is. Flynn gets plenty of older people contacting him via the internet, and recognises how useful it could be for disabled, or house-bound constituents.

Campbell is pioneering the use of partnerships with private companies to expand internet access for ordinary people. She formed Cambridge Online City, based on partnerships with local businesses including UUnet and Cambridge Cable. It has created 15 public internet access points across the city, in libraries and community centres. "This could be a model for how widening web access could proceed," Campbell says.

Widening access can only enhance the democratic ties between online MPs and their constituents. "I believe democratic politics should be about easy access to elected politicians," says Moran. She plans to conduct an online constituency surgery soon, via live video, which she sees as a potentially useful tool for busy politicians stuck in Westminster.

Campbell also believes constituency participation in Westminster politics can be increased by developing personalised web services, with email updates informing people about policy developments. This could, for instance, involve many more people in the consultative stages of legislation.

In such ways, the small band of internet-savvy MPs show that digital democracy is not about fanciful cyber-constituencies, but a means of modernising themselves - and keeping the purpose of parliament alive.

"There are infinite possibilities," says Paul Flynn. But, ultimately, a website is only as good as its MP. "Sadly," he says, "even websites don't transform boring politicians into interesting ones."

The Old Hand

Anne Campbell, Labour

Funded Sponsored by local ISP, UUnet.
Maintenance Maintained by Campbell's constituency staff who have been trained in HTML.
Features FAQs show Campbell's position on policies of concern to her constituents. Also lists press releases, surgery details and a diary of forthcoming engagements.
Function "It keeps people in touch with my with my views on current issues," Campbell says. It also enhances constituents' access to her.

The Maverick

Paul Flynn, Labour

Funded Strongly against sponsorship: pays for it personally.
Maintenance Flynn maintains it, adding 2,000 words of unique content a week. He aims to change the headline on the home page three or four times a week.
Features Easily the most distinctive and witty MP's website. Latest news, details of Flynn's personal crusades, parliamentary anecdotes and an edited version of his two books. Flynn promises to publish a new book on the site this month.
Function Campaigning and constituency contact. "Constituents are using it as an alternative instant method of contact," Flynn says. "Some local journalists regularly pick up stories straight from the website."

The Rebel

Ken Livingstone, Labour

Funded Pays for it personally.
Maintenance Maintained by Poptel. Livingstone's researcher sends them the pieces for publication. "In addition, I can email my press releases directly to the news page," Livingstone says.
Features News, latest articles, surgery details, speeches and an email updates service.
Function "At the moment it is probably stronger as a news and information resource than as a service to my constituents," Livingstone says. "I recently spoke at a conference in Barcelona on the future of city government and my speech was posted on the website at the same time as I got up to speak in Barcelona. When you consider that the media is more interested in the mayor story as an internal Labour Party row than as a debate about London's future, this is invaluable."

The Scottish Nationalist

Roseanna Cunningham, Scottish Nationalist

Funded Through the parliamentary office costs allowance.
Maintenance The designer Iwan Williams keeps an eye on it. Cunningham's constituency assistant puts up her press releases. "The problem is one of time really," says Cunningham.
Features The Soapbox section is "intended as a general forum on a wide range of topics, whether or not they fit into the SNP's current policy".
Function "It is principally a communication tool," says Cunningham. "At present the constituency traffic is probably not all that high - but I am certain it will grow."

The young Conservative

Tim Collins, Conservative

Funded Basic design by a constituent, "who did it at a knock-down price", says Collins. Paid for by the parliamentary office allowance, with assistance from the local Conservative Party.
Maintenance By himself and his office.
Features Polling booth gathers opinion on questions from: "Do you think a new northern relief road would be the best solution to Kendal's traffic problems?" and "Referendum on the Pound". You can also find Collins's speeches on Hansard using the parliamentary search engine linked to the site.
Function "It's there to be a point of communication between me and my constituents," says Collins.