This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.
This week’s guest post comes from Dr Ben Worthy. He’s been looking at the ways which sites like TheyWorkForYou impact politics. We’ll be incorporating things we learn from guest writers into our future thinking around our work.
Our world is awash with information but does more data make for a better democracy? Between 2019 and 2022, our Leverhulme Trust-funded study looked at the impact of monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou on the UK Parliament.
While our research focused on TheyWorkForYou, there are now a whole range of others, from the new Westminster Accounts, which allows you to see MPs’ interests and donations, to (my personal favourite) this Twitter bot that tells you every time someone with a Westminster IP address changes a Wikipedia page (of which there were 5000 edits between 2003 and 2014). Taken together, these sites and platforms are now a powerful source of accountability and a useful short-cut, used to question MPs, and even predict the positions of new Prime Ministers, as you can see with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.
We take all this data for granted in 2023 but it’s important to remember what a difference it makes. If you wanted to find out about a vote in Parliament in 1895, or even 1995, you needed to either procure a copy of Hansard, ransack a local library or hope the results had been published in a newspaper. Do all these new sources have any effect on our politicians?
Potentially, all sorts of things could happen now all the data is so easy to find. The hope is that all this data means MPs are less likely to misbehave, for fear of being caught. The more data, the logic runs, the more people are looking, the more likely you’ll get found out. However, the cynical among you could argue the opposite: misbehaving MPs might get better at hiding. There’s been speculation about unintended consequences, too. Could all this data mean MPs to “try to look busy” by turning up very briefly in debates to speak or asking lots of Parliamentary Questions?
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Perceptions and effects on politicians
To find out, we commissioned a YouGov poll of 100 MPs and asked them the following: ‘A number of websites now exist that enable the public to easily monitor Parliamentary activity, such as TheyWorkForYou. What effect, if any, do you think websites such as these have on (a) your work and role as an MP (b) MPs in general?’
As a whole, MPs had a roughly equal response between feeling positive about the sites (26%), negative (35%), or believing they had no effect (35%). However, there is good news. MPs do feel they are ‘being watched’. One MP described how data from monitoring sites’ keep MPs on their toes and accountable’.
This is one major finding from our project. MPs are more accountable. After votes, they now share explanations and justifications in Hansard, on Twitter or in the local press. In 2021, for example, Conservative MPs who voted against the government’s COVID-19 lockdown measures and tier system took to Twitter to explain their decisions – making memes themselves both before and after key votes.
MPs also, in some cases, change their behaviour. In 2021, after journalists and campaigners crunched data on MPs and their second jobs, some MPs quietly dropped theirs.
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Challenges and concerns in data monitoring
So far, so positive. There is, however, a but. Several, in fact.
First, our poll found monitoring was often targeted at those MPs on the government benches. There was a clear cost of being an MP in the government party. 51% of Conservative MPs saw sites having a negative effect on their own work and 61% on MPs in general. This contrasted with just 19% and 27% respectively for Labour.
Second, it mattered how long you’ve been an MP (and perhaps how safe you are in your seat). Mark Harper argued back in 2006 that:
“TheyWorkForYou.com […] puts Members under incredible pressure. If they do not undertake a volume of work, their performance is criticised—that applies more to new Members than experienced colleagues, who are more relaxed because they have more experience in the House.”
MPs who had been in the Commons for decades, especially from 1997-2009, were far more likely to claim monitoring had “no effect”. This could be because they were safer in their seats or because MPs from 2009 onwards, or 2015, lived through the expenses scandal and Brexit.
Third, gender also plays a role. Female MPs believed far more strongly than their male counterparts that monitoring had a negative impact. This matches what we know about female MPs being frequently subject to greater scrutiny and, for example, less willing to submit expenses claims. The data from TheyWorkForYou was used to famously create a ‘lazy list’ of MPs by the Sun, which then retracted it when it emerged many of those had caring responsibilities. TheyWorkForYou itself has over time published less comparative information, in part due to concerns about gender differences found in the data.
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Party and wider contexts
Are there any downsides? One major concern from MPs is how data could be taken out of context. TheyWorkForYou explains the context carefully. Nevertheless, it is true, as the journalist Marie Le Conte put it, ‘sharing screenshots of an MP’s voting history misses out vital pieces of context’. Party and party loyalty are the key to (most) of what happens in the House of Commons. TheyWorkForYou does contain comparisons between MPs and their parties, but doesn’t clearly present the mixed agency of the MP and the party leadership in making voting decisions – something that would be made much easier if the parties published the voting instructions they give to their MPs.
To take a famous example, the Marcus Rashford-inspired vote on low income children and school holiday meals, which led some Conservative MPs to be banned for life from shops in their constituency, was an Opposition Day vote, where Labour forced Conservative MPs to choose between partisan loyalty and hungry children. On climate change legislation, a full 50 Conservative MPs complained in a letter to the chief executive of mySociety in 2021 that ‘misleading’ data ‘misrepresented’ their positions.
However, we need to remember there is substantial usage of TheyWorkForYou from people working in the Houses of Parliament, and they are happy to use voting data themselves. Keir Starmer accused Johnson of ducking a Heathrow vote, whereas Johnson made up entire Parliamentary votes that didn’t exist.
So, overall data sites do make politicians behave better. As ever in politics, it depends, but more data does actually make for better politics.
To find out more, read the final report and take a look at our project site at https://whoswatchingwestminster.wordpress.com/
Image: Akira on Unsplash.