A one-sided demand for transparency?

Guy Fawkes - the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.

Old Anarchist joke: Guy Fawkes - the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.

Two weeks ago, Internet campaigners made a decisive intervention on what was, as far as the media were concerned, a big story.

Perhaps the most prominent single political blogger in the UK – Guido Fawkes – was followed by perhaps the leading alliance of hacktivists MySociety in demanding that MPs desist from exempting themselves from the full disclosure rules in the Freedom of Information Act.

One rule for them?

As far as I can see, this is an oddly directed campaign. There is one strong argument in it’s favour:

  • If Parliament imposes Freedom of Information rules on other areas of government and failed to make the case for Parliamentary Privileges at the time of the original drafting, it looks foolish to try and wriggle out of the obligations respectively – and it damages Parliament’s reputation to do so.

The other arguments are, I think, a good deal weaker.

An effective way to ‘clean up Parliament?’

Will it stem corruption? I don’t think so. Most of the recent scandals have been to do with the choice of staff who have been employed and what they do. Disclosing receipts won’t deal with that.

And what about dealing with the perception that MPs are on the take? I’d suggest that there are a number of problems with this.

Firstly, as a perception, it’s not that fair in the first place. When the media have managed to create an impression that something is large when it is – in reality – small, one has to wonder how far the provision of evidence is going to make any difference.

By international standards, the UK is a fairly robust democracy with a low level of corruption.

The real shortcomings to our democracy – the centralisation, the lack of bicameralism, the Presidential trumping of Parliament, an unsatisfactory voting system and so on, never seem to attract the kind of attention that capricious personality-centred campaigns like this do.

Even with orchestrated campaigns by newpapers and pressure groups, the public don’t beleive that the UK is really a corrupt place. The idea that such campaigners will give it a rest once this disclosure is in place is very optimistic, as far as I can see. The Guido Fawkes blog makes no secret of the contempt that it holds elected politicians in. Perhaps now that one set of ransoms have been paid, the next hostages will be kidnapped?

This measure will do nothing to restore confidence in democracy. It will just give anti-parliamentary campaigners more petty ammunition to misrepresent what MPs expenses are for. Prepare now for a string of minor scandals about who bought which pot-plant for their London residency.

Does the ‘transparency’ campaign exacerbate the problem it purports to solve?

This, I would suggest is a significant problem. The leitmotif of modern politics – individual corruption of politicians – is drowning out many bigger issues, and providing the cynical campaigners of The Taxpayers Alliance with more ammunition is likely to only exacerbate the problem while keeping the spotlight off many of the real issues that could concern us.

So, in summary, a strong-ish argument – that MPs should have drafted a bill more carefully a few years ago, a couple of weak arguments and a fairly serious unintended consequence.

What about the other guys?

Now I’d like to introduce an argument against doing this.

Parliament competes with other institutions to influence legislation. OK – it does the drafting – but it does so against a backdrop of coercion from the political centre, the permanent bureaucracy, the media, pressure groups, and political parties. It was ever thus. Surely pro-democracy campaigners should be campaigning against those coercive forces?

But when you impose degrees of transparency upon one side of that never-ending struggle – without doing the same to the other participants – you essentially weaken the only grouping that has a legitimate claim to represent the interest of the nation as a whole. We can do mashups of MP’s disclosures because they are obliged to disclose things. Lobbying companies are under no such obligation.

So what about demanding more transparency from MPs rivals? This site aims to expose the mendacity of The Taxpayers Alliance. And the NUJ have started to campaign on the subject of newspapers not doing their jobs properly.

These attempts to crowdsource data to hold participants in civil society to account are clearly going to be a more prominent feature of political life. There are lots of small, fairly uncoordinated campaigns designed to demand transparency from the rivals of Parliament.

Perhaps the next time web activists are looking for someone to target – someone that we can demand full disclosure from, they may choose a tougher – and more deserving target? But here is the big question: How much of a following wind would such a campaign get from slightly demagogic mid-market tabloids?

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One Response

  1. You’ve made a case why there are big issues to be tackled (and I don’t think anyone would disagree), but you haven’t (imho) made a case *against* full disclosure.

    My view is that it is important both to help end abuse – which I it think it will *help*, but also as an icon of an open culture. As I understand it, in the US the idea that details of politicians’ expenditure is not available to the public would be simply bizarre.

    For MySociety, surely the main insight is that by making basic data available and accessible it is then for the public to do what *they* want to do with the data?

    >OK – it (parliament) does the drafting

    I disagree. I think the drafting is done by the Executive and Parliament is becoming more rubber-stamp like all the time as the power balance shifts. Witness that it was acceptable for the Prime Minister to give his “full support” to the Speaker: surely such an endorsement should be well-nigh career ending for the Speaker of a body designed to hold the Executive to account?

    >We can do mashups of MP’s disclosures because they are obliged to disclose things.

    .. if they end up disclosing them.

    >Lobbying companies are under no such obligation.

    ..yet.

    >Perhaps the next time web activists are looking for someone to target – someone that we can demand full disclosure from, they may choose a tougher – and more deserving target? But here is the big question: How much of a following wind would such a campaign get from slightly demagogic mid-market tabloids?

    I think that full disclosure by MPs is just one step, that has been forced on to the agenda due to the repeated and determined effort to prevent disclosure.

    I’m sorry that I don’t have time to do a full response.

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