Two new political websites: one good, one er…

Meet Your Next MP
News of two new political websites hit my inbox today. One looks a really good example of using the internet to inspire offline activity, in this case giving a boost to public meetings at election time:

MeetYourNextMP works by allowing members of the public to list husting events around the country…

[We] also encourage other organisations to take the event data and reuse it – for example to encourage their own members to engage with the election more.

MeetYourNextMP also provides a space for those who want to organise a husting to post and connect with others in their local area.

MeetYourNextMP is also keen to encourage genuine debate so it only lists independent events where the public will really get the chance to question their candidates.

James Baster, Director at MeetYourNextMP said: “If the Scottish Referendum with its 85% turnout proved anything, it’s that people will get involved with politics when they see it as important and interesting.

“At this general election, the choice facing the country has never been more important and we want to encourage people to get involved with local and national politics.”

MeetYourNextMP is supported by Democracy Club, who are a non-partisan group who work around elections.

Democracy Club are also working on YourNextMP, a list of all candidates standing (3000+ so far) that journalists, researchers and campaign groups can use for free. This was built using the same crowd sourcing process by asking members of the public to submit candidates they know about…

A Scottish version, MeetYourNextMSP, is also planned for launch in 2016.

Then the one I have some doubts about:

RateYourMP.com offers voters the opportunity to find out their current MPs rank, value and benchmark performance across the country since the last general election.

The site provides access to information so users can see how many times an MP voted in the House of Commons compared to how many votes actually took place. Visitors can also access information about how much money they took in salary, allowances and expenses and see – over the five year period – how much they ‘cost per vote’ in the current Parliament.

In its favour, RateYourMP is clear about where its data comes from and avoids the common mistake of confusing “expenses” with office costs. Employing members of staff is very different from claiming personal expenses. In a normal work environment the costs of staff to support someone in a post wouldn’t be muddled up with that person’s personal expense claims in the way that reporting of Parliament often does. RateYourMP distinguishes between these two different sorts of costs very clearly.

Even so, there’s the fundamental problem that some MPs have much higher “costs” for perfectly decent reasons – such as how far away from London their constituency is. An MP for the Western Isle or Orkney and Shetland has to spend far more on travel than an MP for a central London constituency.

That’s geography, not profligacy.

This makes comparing overall costs of MPs a metric of limited benefit. Limited too is measuring workrate by number of votes attended in Parliament. As one part of a range of ways of judging an MP, it has some merit (and I’ve used it in the past in just that way). But it too is far from unproblematic, especially given how some MPs have roles that legitimately take them away from London, and so away from votes, far more often than others. Would you judge how hard Foreign Secretary William Hague works simply be virtue of how many votes in London he attends?

So when a site adds two such limited metrics together, and produces one overall ranking, I’m dubious. The costs are not closely related to how profligate with our money an MP is and whilst the number of votes works as a slightly better measure of how hard they work, even then it’s not that good a measure on its own.

I fear that the site has fallen foul of the temptation to value measures because they exist in precise statistical form, rather than because the measures really reveal what it’s useful to know.

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