In an exclusive interview with Whippersnapper, the Rt Hon. Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat) gave his views on John Bercow’s Digital Democracy “Open Up!” report, stating that Parliament and in particular, the House of Lords, must embrace the technological revolution.
Reporting from Westminster
|Lord Kirkwood remains optimistic for the report’s proposals, but real obstacles, largely in the form of MPs, must be overcome. (Photo: East Midlands Liberal Democrats)|
On Monday 26 January, John Bercow’s Digital Democracy Commission published its report “Open Up!”, looking into how Parliament could be made more accessible for the general public, with greater participation in politics, via means of technology.
The report was widely welcomed, receiving praise for its ingenuity and comprehensiveness from across the board, with Lord Kirkwood in particularly extolling its virtues. During a Q&A session with John Bercow and the commissioners, Lord Kirkwood welcomed the report, but questioned whether MPs would be able to handle the extra burden that greater engagement with social media would result in. Lord Kirkwood, a former MP himself, stated to Mr Bercow that certain aspects of the report were not realistic and could be too ambitious. He opined that were politicians to interact more with the electorate via social media, it would lead to already overworked MPs having to become social media savvy almost overnight, with additional members of staff being necessary to manage pages, in essence as PR managers.
In a time of austerity and deep public cuts, such a move would prove deeply unpopular and may dent public trust in Parliament even further. With MPs already having 3.5 members of staff on average, Lord Kirkwood believes that much of the population would not be able to understand the need for MPs’ greater spending, and would be deeply unsympathetic to their cause. To illustrate how overworked politicians are, Lord Kirkwood highlighted himself and his colleagues. He claimed that for Lords in particular, embracing social media may be especially hard, not only because of the geriatric nature of many Peers, but also because of the fact that Lords such as him don’t hire any Parliamentary assistants. Lord Kirkwood claimed that he has to single-handedly answer hundreds of emails per day, and many other Peers have created separate email addresses to stem the never-ending stream. Any attempt to make politicians interact more with their voters would be unfeasible.
However, one of the weak links in the report that Lord Kirkwood identified was the attitudes of MPs themselves, and whether they would be conducive to instigate real change. While a great deal of MPs are familiar with digital means of communication such as Twitter, to many in the House of Commons, it is a scary and bewildering prospect, as evidenced by Stephen Pound MP, who midway through an interview with Sky’s Stand Up Be Counted campaign, admitted that he did not know what a “hashtag” was. As Lord Kirkwood identified, getting Parliament to embrace the digital age may be easier said than done.
That being said, Lord Kirkwood remained confident of the proposals’ potential. The report had an “optimistic perspective”, and he made it clear that genuinely believes certain proposals will be seriously considered. However, when pressed on to what extent and by when real change would be implemented, Lord Kirkwood remained somewhat hesitant, stating that the government would need to through its full weight behind the proposals in order to get a majority in the Commons. In addition, Lord Kirkwood noted that he would be very disappointed if no action was taken by the House to implement key recommendations such as online voting, by 2020.
Lord Kirkwood also had hope for the educational potential that John Bercow’s proposals had. Again, Lord Kirkwood used himself as an illustrative example, stating that he had a key role in the editing of the Health and Social Care Bill 2012. The House of Lords took out the so called “bedroom tax” from the bill, only for it to be reinserted by the Government in the Commons due to financial privilege.
As Lord Kirkwood correctly ascertained, these developments regarding such an important bill were unknown to most people, as there is little coverage of the debates. Social media could help make Parliament more transparent and educate more people on what is said during key debates, with open data provision meaning Hansard could be used more openly, to inform the public as to what goes on in Parliament, and in particular, the House of Lords. This, Lord Kirkwood pointed out, was vital for there to be greater accountability and faith in the Parliamentary system and politicians.
Thus, it is clear that Lord Kirkwood, and many politicians alike remain optimistic about the capacity for real change if the John Bercow’s proposals are implemented. What he has made clear is that the time for talking is over; the time for action is now.