Thirty Eight degree separation from effective engagement.
Just before the last election Parliamentary candidates became inundated with identical e-mailed messages demanding the recipient confirm his or her position without equivocation on a vast range of issues.
Most of us felt that this was reasonable but wished that we didn’t have to reply to each person individually as the numbers built up terrifyingly quickly until very little additional work was possible.
Since then the curse if the automated e-mail has become ever more pervasive and destructive of time management.
On any given day there will be between three and five campaigning bodies, trades unions or special interest groups encouraging their members and supporters to e-mail their MP – and woe betide the miserable Member who fails to reply by return.
This worrying trend has reached its apotheosis – without the divinity – in an organisation called 38 Degrees.
On first sight this seems a truly noble set up in which civically minded citizens unite around an issue and seek to persuade, by sheer weight of numbers, an MP to vote for or against the selected cause.
They cite the recent call for the BSkyB bid to be referred and the cut back sale of the ancient woodlands as examples of their goodness of heart and `campaigning success.
However; all is not as well as might seem and I would seriously suggest that democracy and citizen engagement with Parliament is actually diminished rather than enhanced by 38 Degrees.
The identikit e-mail messages are usually caught by the Spam filters at Westminster and most MPs only drain the sump once a day so there tends to be a built in time delay in responding – which does seem to annoy those who expect the instant response.
Once you have received the message you have to resist the temptation to create an identikit response – especially if you have a long history of voting in support of particular proposition sand are far from likely to be spurred to greater passion by a hundred cookie-cutter e-mails.
I have actually seen offices in which an intern opens the identical e-mails and constructs a standard response which is then sent back to the constituents – all with the MP having neither sight nor sound of the message.
The 38 degree people then claim a huge success and the MPs claims a massive level of contact with the electorate.
All are convinced that something great has happened and the self–congratulation can only be imagined.
You might well ask yourself if this actually matters and make a case for any contact between electors and elected being a step forward.
I would suggest that the blizzard of word-for-word e-mails is not only wholly counterproductive in that many an honest MP who opens each and every one of his or her e-mails gets so profoundly fed-up of writing back to people who have elected to tick a box and dispatch a pre-digested message to their MP.
The other problem is that a standard e-mail does not riminate between MPs.
In the matter of the Murdochian massacres the key motion in the emergency debate was tabled by the Labour Party so it seems a complete waste of time to write to Labour MPs asking that they vote for their own motion.
Surely those living in non-Labour constituencies should redouble their efforts to influence their Parliamentary representatives and those who live in Labour areas could actually write to the Government Minister expressing their support for the 38Degree position.
By simply ticking a box and sending an inriminate message across the nation the chances of minds being changed is slight indeed and the strong probability of an ever increasing irritation being experienced by the MP tends to make the process futile and self-defeating.
I see the whole sterile structure as symptomatic of a move away from contact between humans to a vicarious life akin to that achieved by H.G.Wells’ Eloi in their transition to beings of pure thought and little substance. I consider it to be a bitter irony that every single message I have received in favour of the retention of Post Offices has been sent by e-mail and I never miss the opportunity to remind people that actions have consequences.
In the case of the scattergun synthetic script I can just about see that someone unused to contacting that distant dignified figure who sits as their MP can make use of the technique as an entry level contact.
In my case I write back to people who have contacted me for the first time to thank them, assure them of my attention in the future and explain where we can meet in person and briefly breathe the same air and look each other in the eye – instead of conducting a distant relationship in which cliché speaks unto cliché and nothing really changes.
Sometimes the world seems to be retreating into an electronic cave in which self-gratification is the motivating force and ease of effort the watchword.
By taking the trouble to send an e-mail to an MP on the subject of – say – live animal exports, animals in circus, acidification of the seas, famine in Africa, martyrdom of the Christian communities of Iraq and even the ever toppling row of dominoes that is the Murdoch/Coulson/Cameron scandal then the individual does show that they care and deserve respect for that.
However their efforts, however noble, can have the opposite effect and I implore every one of the good citizens of Ealing North to send me no more premasticated pap but to actually let me know their original thoughts and, if necessary, to talk through the issues.
I attribute no dark motives to 38Degrees and actually agree with all their campaigns to date but the danger of plebiscite rule is that subtleties are lost and a situation could arise as it did in the case of the Gurka settlement rights when it was utterly impossible for any MP of conscience to even consider voting against the extension of UK residential rights to Gurkas and their families and yet many could see the consequences that are now so horrible evident in depopulated valleys of Nepal and the new slums of Aldershot.
By what transparent and democratic process does 38degrees choose their causes? I don’t know and I welcome further civil participation but dearly wish that we could achieve it without the juvenile mechanism of the ghost written tick box generic e-mail.