Sunday, September 28, 2008

Should the rules change?

Nadine Dorries MP has had a blog for some time, she blogs a lot and often offers some interesting insights into her thinking. Sunny Hundal reported to the Parliamentary Commissioner that the blog was being publicly funded from her communication budget; this is up to £7,000 that can be spent on the production and distribution of documents including annual reports, surveys and letters, official parliamentary websites - which would be taken down during general elections - but not party political campaigning or information. According to Jack Straw the idea is that it will fund communication that will "contribute towards public understanding of what this Parliament is for and what it does".

Although little has been done to Nadine Dorries, in fact her blog claims she was cleared of wrongdoing. The ruling however makes three points:

The rules of the house, however, do require Members to make a clear distinction between websites which are financed from public funds and any other domain. At the time of your complaint, Mrs Dorries’ website did not meet that requirement. Nor was it appropriate that she use the Portcullis emblem on the weblog given its contents. And the funding attribution on Mrs Dorries’ Home Page should have been updated to reflect that the funding came from the Communications Allowance and not from the Incidental Expenses Provision.

Clearly the sum of £1992 claimed by Dorries funds the blog in some way, in terms of webhosting if nothing else.

But should there be such worry about her blog. She has removed the 'offending' logo and so made good the problems identified. There is a more important point here though. Opponents are making a fuss about her blog, but it could well fulfill the potential Straw claims that the communication allowance has. Her blog posts mix information about her role, her politics, comments on public affairs and her own, sometimes off-the-wall, observations on the world. All of this says a lot about Dorries the person, the MP and her party in essence. The rules delineate between campaigning and informing, but in effect the boundary is too blurred to be of use. While an MP may use a range of communication tools to explain what they do, a by-product of that is saying I am very active so, if you are a constituent, you should re-elect me. Equally, while it would be easier for all MPs who wish to blog to join a free site, actually the set up cost is the main expenditure. After that does it mean it is owned by the public for the site's entire existence or just for the year it was paid for.

What seems to be forgotten by the rule makers, but also by all of those who complain at breaches of rules, is that we live in an age of permanent campaigning. The Lib Dem Focus newsletter, Labour's Rose and Conservative MP's mailouts have a very clear campaigning function: the promote the activities of the MP, councillors and the party. So how do you say you cannot do any campaigning, how do you draw the boundaries between informing and campaigning, and is it relevant to do so anymore?


Sim-O said...

the Lib Dem Focus newsletter and the other equivalents are paid for by the parties, aren't they? As such they can campaign, because it is obvious that they are from a party and not govt./parliament.

The problem with a situation like Dorries, is that she was using taxpayers money to pay for her own blog which was not only providing parliamentary business info but also campaigning for the conservatives and denigrating her political apponents. The use of the portcullis logo gives the impression that it is an official parliamentary site.

She can say and do as she wants, but if it's campaigning or rubbishing opponets, she can pay for it herself.

The line is not as blurred as you think.

Darren G Lilleker said...

It depends on the MP who pays for newsletters. If you download the 'Right to Know' expenses declarations some have their newsletters printed at public cost some do not. But the point I was making was a little more general about the nature of the content and their effects.

While rubbishing opponents may be a step too far, and something I have never seen in newsletters, there is a campaign element to all MP's communications. By advertising their activities they can gain a personal vote within a constituency, something that benefitted a number of MPs in marginal constituencies in 2005 (I have the data on three contests), so this automatically gives the incumbent an advantage. Secondly they frequently promote party policy in newsletters, while not denigrating other parties this promotes them and their party.

So I do think the lines are significantly blurred to be highly questionable and that there is a bigger issue here. Yes the portcullis motif should not be there but I wonder how many of the Conservative MPs' Westminster Reports, all of which are paid for by the public, are purely informational, and really if any information can be totally unbiased and bland so there can be no suggestion of an element of campaigning.

It is a question and not an attack on any party or MP. It is the nature of the political game in an era of permanent campaigning; at the very least all information will paint the sender in the best light possible.

Cheers for the comment, happy to discuss it further

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