Yesterday was ORGcon, the first annual conference of the Open Rights Group with whom I’ve worked since before they actually existed (they started to be formed at OpenTech in 2005).
It was a successful day, not just because of the sessions, but because of the conversations. ORGcon was a gathering of most of the most politically digitally engaged activists in the UK.
There was an interesting panel with Tom Watson MP, Julian Huppert MP and Eric Joyce ex-MP. But despite the high level interest, there’s one thing that really stuck out in contrast to the rest of the panel. I agree with the vast majority that Tom said, in what was a very good speech to a friendly audience who gave him a rousing round of applause as introduction.
Tom Watson was talking about his hugely admirable work on the Digital Economy Bill. He made a joke to thank a colleague on the panel, for helping him draft amendments and process. The punchline of the thanks was for showing him where the amendment office was, and telling him that he was due to speak about them (tomorrow).
My textual delivery is no match for Tom Watson’s personable and passionate delivery (it’s easy to see why he’s a popular MP both online and in his constituency). But the thank you got the laugh it intended from the audience.
Initially, I also found it uncomfortably funny; and on a second reflection saw why.
Tom’s been in Parliament for 9 years. And while he’s also been a Minister for a good chunk of time (Minister’s have staff for amendments), Tom’s position was that this ignorance is normal, indeed, amusing – it was the punchline of the joke. And the entire room of 200 people agreed with him. But if that’s the level of engagement we get from backbenchers, why are we surprised at the level of amendment and engagement that happens with issues. If that’s the level of expection that the most politically active group has on digital issues, there’s possibly also something wrong with that group’s expectations.
Tom tweeted after the vote that it was the first time he had rebelled in 9 years, and he felt sick at doing it. I see why he felt that way, but the main question is, in 9 years, were there no votes where the best interests of his constituents were to go the other way? While his personal interests are aligned with ORG, and while he and I agree on a vast amount of this, how was that vote representing his constituents any better than any others?
Julian Huppert responded to one questioner that indignantly asked why he hadn’t used his first BIS question in the House on an ORG issue, but he instead used it on something else for his constituents. The questioner got the response they deserved, by noting that ORG is a special interest too, just one that everyone in the room happened to agree with.
In summary, the take-away seemed to be “Find an MP whose interests matches yours, and hope they rebel against the whip”. Which is no way to run a party, policy or Government; Minority interests will always get trampled. Which, in summary of that session, seems to be why the Digital Economy Bill became an Act.