Monday, October 31, 2011

In defence of Early Day Motions

The best description I've ever heard of Early Day Motions came from my brother-in-law, who once referred to them as "parliamentary Facebook groups". I think this is a neat way of summing up what EDMs do and don't do. They don't lead to parliamentary debates (except in very exceptional circumstances); they don't change the law; but they do offer an opportunity for MPs to put their views on an issue on the record - and, if they get big enough, they tend to attract some attention.

After the 2010 election, a lot of the new intake of Tory MPs decided they weren't going to bother with EDMs. Some of them explain why in, er, this EDM. I agree with at least some of what it says: campaigners sometimes fixate on EDMs and mould supporter campaigns around them as if they are somehow an end in themselves, even though, as the motion notes, they "very rarely have any influence on policy". Sometimes NGOs can activate their supporter base without much thought as to whether the flurry of work this creates for MPs' offices is actually well-targeted to help achieve their aims. And yes, there are probably too many EDMs (although it's worth noting that the most frivolous, like this one about Countdown and this one about Coronation Street, tend to be entirely the MPs' own work and not that of "public affairs professionals"). I suppose I technically count as a "public affairs professional", although I work for a charity and not the sort of evil lobbying agency that phrase implies. I'm certainly quite selective in how I use EDMs - I find they're mainly useful for getting press coverage and for flushing out MPs who you don't yet know but who are sympathetic to your cause.

But this EDM also betrays a certain contempt for its signatories' constituents, complaining as it does of "the huge volume of correspondence" generated by EDMs. Guys, I hate to break it to you, but corresponding with your constituents is sort of in your job description. EDMs are one way in which voters can express their concern about an issue to their elected representative and ask them if they will register that concern. They seem to me to be a pretty efficient mechanism for doing that: I certainly can't think of a more efficient one. So by complaining about how much they cost, the anti-EDM contingent is basically complaining that democracy is expensive. Well, yeah. So is your second home. Shall we take that away as well? No, thought not.

Tabling an EDM to explain why you're not going to sign any more EDMs displays more than a well-developed sense of irony. It's an implicit acknowledgement of their real value: as one of the few truly open forums in which MPs can put their position about something on the public record. If you're so inclined, you can look up your MP's EDM record to get a sense of the issues they care about and the extent to which their views align with yours. It will certainly give you a much fuller picture than their voting record, unless they're an arch rebel. In other words, EDMs are one of the few tools that exist to help you hold your MP to account for what they do between elections. Perhaps that's not the function they were originally intended for, and perhaps they no longer fulfil that original function. But that's evolution for you. It's not the same as obsolescence. As one MP who I used to work with was fond of saying, EDMs get politicians off the fence. If you, a constituent, write to your MP and ask them to sign an EDM, they have to either sign it or refuse to sign it: there's no third option.

Except the Tories who have taken such a principled stance against this "waste of taxpayers' money" now do have a third option: they can stay on the fence, because they don't have to directly address your request, or indeed write back to you with anything helpful about their views on the issue at stake. Instead, they can just politely explain that, sorry, they don't sign EDMs. They are, perhaps not deliberately but very definitely, opting out of being held to account. And that's a poor way to thank the people who put them there.

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