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…