June 22, 2015 MeetYourNextMP Events
MeetYourNextMP was a crowdsourced calendar of over 1,000 independent hustings or candidate forum events at the general election. Its purpose was to make these events easier to find so voters could go and question their candidates, and also to try to make more voters aware that these events exist and are open to all.
We chose to only list independent events. This was much discussed at the start and now the election’s over, it’s time to take a good look at this policy.
Firstly, what is an independent event? This is the rule we settled on – the event should:
We believe such events are more likely to promote frank and full debate and are more informative for voters.
This policy helped when trying to find information about events – this was generally much harder to do than it should have been by the way, a topic we will return to in another blog post. But if you saw one candidate advertising an event, you could check that against what another candidate in that seat was saying to see if they were going to.
There is so much to do as a candidate. A member of a major party tried to tell us we wouldn’t get candidates adding events themselves or passing on details. While it’s true most didn’t, we did get many. But because it was independent events this mattered less. If an event had 5 candidates speaking and only 1 took the time to tell us, we still had all the basic details for that event.
Also having this policy meant we may have avoided some difficult situations. Because they were independent events people who supported one party or another had no incentive to try and mess them around. This may not have been true if it was open to all events; if a party posted a meet the candidate event at a local market, there may be people online who hate them and mess around with their event to cause trouble.
As an alternative to this approach, we did talk about instead listing all events – i.e. anywhere a candidate was speaking – whether with others or alone – and tagging independent events so that these could be highlighted, but building up data of these events takes a lot of work. Someone finally hit on the perfect phrase to explain why I didn’t want to do this – the “effort to payoff ratio”. Doing this would take more effort, and potentially have less payoff. However only requiring independent events meant we had lower effort for our volunteers and higher payoff.
(Also, I felt if a voter is interested in one candidate only and wants to meet them this should really be an easy problem for the candidate to solve. The voter should be able to simply look up the candidates website and see a list of events and pick one. However many candidates did not have great websites; something that puzzles me.)
The original spark for MeetYourNextMP was a charity asking if anyone had put together a list of events so they could direct their supporters to it and get them to question their candidates at hustings; and we think we achieved that goal.
However, with any system that aims to be a neutral system and reflect what is happening in reality, you have to ask if there are any biases you are thoughtlessly repeating or amplifying. For example, Google Search autosuggest works by learning from what other have searched for. So while Google would say their system is neutral, they have been accused of promoting results that many people think are offensive.
So who was our independent events policy biased against? Independent and small party candidates.
Official guidelines are very clear on the ability of event organisers to exclude such candidates, for good reason – at hustings with 5 or 6 candidates it is already quite hard to give them all decent speaking time, and if you had 10 or more candidates it would be even worse. And so, candidates from smaller parties who were excluded from hustings by organisers also found themselves excluded from coverage on MeetYourNextMP.
We don’t have an easy answer for this. Maybe there are ways hustings could let smaller party candidates play a more minor role; we have seen an event where a smaller party candidate sat in the audience and was given a few minutes to speak at the end. Or maybe they could be allowed a mini stall to present materials from while the audience are waiting for the main event to start?
Ultimately though, the real problem is the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system which means small party candidates mostly have no chance. They generally aren’t treated fairly by a lot of the existing campaign structures, such as local press. Maybe with the calls for a better voting system, this issue will be returned to.
Other rules we considered was a rule that the event had to involve some form of audience participation. This was dropped as it quickly became clear most events did not advertise if they had this, and so it was impossible to apply.
We also considered a rule that events had to be open to the public – some events are open to members of certain organisations only. Some people wanted to list all events and try and pressure those events that weren’t open to open up. However to shift from listing events to trying to pressure candidates and organisers to change events might annoy them. When we are just trying to list events candidates and organisers should in theory be happy to support us and pass event details on to us. Ultimately, we left this rule off to see what would happen. Almost every event we got was public, and we had so much to do dealing with public events we just left this issue for another time.
For MeetYourNextMP we think that generally our policy of only listing independent events worked well, but we are happy to hear comments and feedback on this before next time!
Written by James Baster