In the third of the 4 Quick Fire Questions series, I’ve been fortunate enough to have grabbed the time of Kerry McCarthy, the Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol East. I’d like to thank Kerry a heck of a lot for the time she took in putting together her answers – as you will see, she’s been brilliantly detailed, and that is greatly appreciated.
Kerry was elected as the Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol East in May 2005. She lives in the Redcliffe area of Bristol, and has a constituency office in St. George. Kerry is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, the Co-operative Party, the Fabian Society, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the Labour Animal Welfare Society. On being elected to Parliament in 2005, Kerry was appointed a member of the influential Treasury Select Committee, and is currently working as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development.
What is the value to you as an MP, of having a blog?
Most of the traditional ways of communicating with constituents are quite formal, and the flow of communication is in one direction only. This is true even of the website, although I have tried to make it interactive. Although I get a lot of letters and emails from constituents, and obviously meet people at events and at my surgeries, this still only represents a small proportion of the people I represent. So the blog is a way of trying to communicate with a wider audience, who might not otherwise engage with their MP, and also to try to get across a bit better what my views are on things, and what I am like as a person. The blog is also a good way of raising issues which I care about, as there are only limited opportunities to do this in Parliament or in the mainstream media, and it’s a good way of letting campaigners and people who care deeply about such issues know that there is an MP who is also interested. The downside it that I also attract attention from people I would much rather not have to engage with! A huge amount of time and energy can be wasted arguing with people who are not from my constituency and are not remotely representative of people who are.
In what ways can the political sphere, particularly that of Westminster, engage with bloggers and the online media?
I think that even if MPs don’t want to have their own blogs, it would be good for them to comment on other people’s – particularly local bloggers talking about local issues. The blogosphere is of limited use if it’s only a talking shop (the modern day equivalent of people sitting in the pub having a pint and moaning about politicians!) So it needs attention from the audience at which it should really be aimed, i.e. those with the power to do something about the issue. The blogosphere can be a very negative and cynical environment, and although politicians can’t change this overnight, it would help if politicians chipped in to debates and said – ‘actually, we are doing that’, or ‘good point, I’ll ask a question about it’. That would help transform debate into action.
As the importance and relevance of online media becomes more widely discussed in the wider public, how do you think this will affect blogging politicians?
In some ways it could be a deterrent. It’s clear that the mainstream media already monitors politicians’ blogs and Twitter usage. With the local press, this is useful – sometimes my blog posts can act as informal press releases, and a local journalist will phone up to follow up on something I’ve mentioned. With the national media the agenda is usually to try to catch someone out – witness Tom Harris and his Daily Mail front page!
On the other hand though, I think it the internet will increasingly become where people first go to if they want to contact their politician or find out more about him or her, and MPs with only a poor online presence will need to raise their game.
In what ways can current blogging politicians encourage non-blogging politicians to enter the blogosphere?
As I said, there’s a nervousness about it, because of the risk of having to watch every word you say in case it gets twisted by the mainstream media – or in case it’s used by your opponents at election time. There is always the thought lurking in the back of your mind as you blog – how will this be interpreted? (Or, more likely, how could this be misinterpreted?) Many other MPs are also worried about the time it will take up, which is why Twitter is good – you don’t have to construct lengthy posts about a topic, you just have to say ‘busy doing this’ or ‘really happy about that’, and it gets a dialogue going – although again, are they likely to be your constituents? My tactic so far has been to encourage MPs to sign up to Twitter, and possibly a ‘diary’ type blog on their website, which is just them talking about what they’ve been up to. I think some ambitious MPs will, as the blogosphere grows, start using it more as a way of raising their national profile – but I suspect they will be the ones who end up getting caught out!