Saturday, 24 April 2010

The first rule of online lobbying: get the email right

I have written previously about the politically motivated smear campaign being run by local Lib Dems over the fact that I used to work for a media consultancy called Portland.

Last week they returned to the fray with a leaflet which made great play of the issue. Their timing couldn’t have been worse because the biggest story on lobbying of this election is that Nick Clegg used to work for a lobby firm called GJW which he failed to disclose on his election literature and does not mention on his CV. GJW controversially advised Colonel Gadaffi over the Lockerbie trials. Perhaps Julia Goldsworthy would like to publically condemn her own party leader over his “secret lobbying past”?

A couple of months ago, I read a story in the Observer newspaper that there was going to be an online lobbying campaign against me. It was initiated by a girl called Tamasin Cave, a political activist who writes regularly for Lib Dem blogs. It focused only on Labour and Conservative candidates and was immediately condemned by other commentators in the blogosphere. Tamasin was teaming up with a group of lobbyists called “38 degrees”. A curious name, but apparently, 38 degrees is the angle at which an avalanche happens. The idea was that I would receive an avalanche of 100,000 emails. So what sort of avalanche did I experience? Not one single email.

Initially I assumed there was no interest but it transpires that they had spelt the email address wrongly on their system. I think that’s a shame because I always make the effort to reply to every constituency email I receive in person and I don’t like the idea that there might be some people out there who think I ignored their email as a result of the incompetence of this group. I also pity the poor person somewhere else in the world who has a similar email address to me and must be completely bewildered by it all. Last night I met one of the 38 degrees team at a hustings and gave him my email so he could sort their problem out.

There are already strict rules that mean MPs must declare all their financial interests from clients to directorships and major shareholdings. I think that’s right because it is essential that there is transparency where there might be a conflict of interest. The Conservatives have gone further still. We are the only party where candidates have already made a declaration of their own interests at the point of nomination.

There are many charities and campaign groups out there who encourage their members to email parliamentary candidates. Many have their own manifestos and pledges. In this election, they range from the NSPCC to Macmillan Cancer Care, the Ramblers, Greenpeace and the Woodland Trust. I rarely sign up to pledges directly even where I have a lot of sympathy with the cause, but I always reply to the constituents who email me to explain my views.

The reason I generally don’t sign the pledges of other organisations is that I think politicians should be independent minded, listen to all of the arguments from all sides and then exercise judgement about what they think is the right thing to do.

When it comes to so called “lobbying”, the answer is to make sure that any financial interests of MPs are declared so there is no conflict of interest. That already happens. People shouldn’t fear that politicians are exposed to the arguments made by charities, campaign groups or businesses. After all, we live in a democracy and we should have free debate. So I don’t support a mandatory register of meetings which would just be a tier of bureaucracy that adds nothing to our democracy. But they should expect their MPs to remain of independent mind and exercise judgement themselves rather than do what lobbyists ask them. That is why declaring financial interests is what matters.

The irony is that 38 Degrees are a lobby group themselves and, to date, the only candidate in this seat to resist their lobbying is me.