The website “TheyWorkForYou” is changing British politics

And not always for the better

May 25, 2018
A screen shot of the TheyWorkForYou website
A screen shot of the TheyWorkForYou website

It worries MPs and concerns governments, but it’s run by just 25 people stretched across the country with no office and no funding. It was founded two years before Twitter, in 2004, but it suits our digital age to a tee. “It” is a website: TheyWorkForYou.

“Our reach grows year by year,” says Myfanwy Nixon of mySociety, the company which runs TheyWorkForYou. And it’s not just the general public taking an interest: “We know that people in parliament access TheyWorkForYou above their own internal or external websites.”

What exactly is it?

TheyWorkForYou distils parliamentary goings-on into simple, easy to share gobbets of information. It summarises MPs’ voting records and registers how often they vote, speak, and receive answers to written questions. It links to their speeches. In its “numerology” section it measures individual MPs against the pack on criteria including speaking record and voting record.

When I ask it about my local MP, Helen Hayes, it tells me lots of things, one of which is that she has “almost always voted for more EU integration.”

These words sum up all her votes on issues TheyWorkForYou decides relate to European Union integration. The site tells me she has voted 32 times in favour, four times against, and been absent five times. It’s a useful thumbnail sketch, but as we will see, one with serious pitfalls.

TheyWorkForYou is a powerful democratic tool. But not all is sunshine and light.

“It’s like an infant school guide to politics, it doesn’t have any nuance or subtlety” says Mike Gapes, Labour MP for Ilford South. “It reflects a lack of understanding of what an MP does,” explains former Attorney General Dominic Grieve.

MPs rail that it ignores extenuating factors: whipping (TheyWorkForYou say as there is no official information on whipping their hands are tied), pairing, illness, and even maternity leave. An SNP aide adds “If we choose not to take part in debates on English matters and don’t vote, then TheyWorkForYou will record a low voting record.”

How much does it affect MPs? Though some happily flag their TheyWorkForYou pages as certificates of endeavour, one ex-shadow cabinet minister huffs, “I never look at it. Most MPs ignore it.” Tell that to some of the newer intake. “I have been watching my numbers,” said one, “I do try to speak at a certain frequency simply to make sure that I’m not a below average person in the numerology.”

Staggeringly, it may even have changed government policy. “I think it’s one of the reasons why it was decided not to oppose opposition day debates in this parliament,” says Jacob Rees-Mogg. “They were concerned that in marginal seats voting against ‘motherhood and apple pie’ on opposition days was being used against incumbents and that it’s better to accept a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ motion than to vote against it.”

MPs’ voting records are of course a key issue. When Sajid Javid was appointed Home Secretary he was criticised for voting for the same “hostile environment” policies as Amber Rudd. This was somewhat unfair: he was a member of the government at the time and so had little choice.

But why shouldn’t an MP be criticised for how they’ve voted, even if they were whipped to do so or were a member of the government? If more MPs had turned to their consciences earlier might we have avoided deporting our own citizens?

Criticism of Javid’s votes—attack by voting record—is a growing phenomenon, not a new one. MPs have always been criticised for how they vote, though seldom in such a crude and effective way. In the general election last year newspapers capitalised on the fact that stories about voting records—brief, factual explainers—took off. They do well online. “I think readers respond to information like that because it's immediate,” the i newspaper’s Associate Editor Karl McDonald says, “it’s non-partisan and you don't have to be an initiate to understand.”

Myfanwy Nixon says "We see TheyWorkForYou as a factual tool that allows people to take what they need in order to engage with their politicians. We would never have an opinion on the way an MP has voted, but if it empowers people to speak up then that is a good result."

She adds, "We would stand by our analysis of the voting lines. When people use our voting lines we would ask them to link back to the site [where] you can see the context."

Could more MPs be driven to vote with their consciences, not the whip? “Definitely. No two ways about it,” says Jess Phillips, Birmingham Yardley MP. Her Labour colleague Wes Streeting agrees: “It’s becoming increasingly important for MPs to remember that every vote is a conscience vote and that ultimately we will be held to account by our constituents or by our own consciences.”

But if MPs are becoming more accountable, who exactly are they becoming accountable to? Online critics are not always local. “[There’s] this fear of a backlash from people who probably aren’t your constituents,” says Phillips. But that’s not TheyWorkForYou’s fault: “those people don’t need ammunition,” she explains, “they craft their own bullets.”

And if it’s their own consciences, how many MPs will find they’re like Clare Short, of whom Ben Macintyre wrote “whenever she wrestles with her conscience, she wins”?

MPs do welcome the enhanced accountability. But while more sensitivity to public opinion is good, public opinion can change. Today’s honourable record is tomorrow’s damning epitaph. The problem with voting records is that they present a particular view of an MP: this is who they really are; the proof is in the voting. What if an MP wants to change their mind? Politics is also the art of persuasion, and regurgitations of voting record make little allowance for rethinks.

TheyWorkForYou is an excellent tool that makes Westminster easier to understand. But it has an unintended dark side: what can open up politics may also slam it shut.