Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy hearing from constituents, whether by letter, by email, on the phone, or while buying mushrooms at the Farmers’ Market in Andover.
Any MP who wants to represent his constituents in Parliament needs to know what they are thinking; and these exchanges are the raw material from which we construct our speeches - censoring the more abrasive comments. Indeed, on the basis of what people tell us, we help our respective parties to shape their future policies. Communication and dialogue is the very currency of local politics.
In the old days, most of this was done by post. One would collect the letters from the Members' Post Office and potter off to the room which one shared, in my case, with five other MP’s and read the unexpurgated works of the voters of Ealing Acton. One would then dictate the considered response, to the background noise of the Labrador belonging to one of my colleagues’ secretaries. And then the day would be clear for Parliamentary duties, holding to account whichever group of Ministers happened to be in charge of the country at that time.
That rhythm has gone totally out of the window. Constituents still write letters, but most communicate by email. And the email does not arrive in a neat bundle at the beginning of the day to be disposed of before Parliament sits; it arrives spasmodically throughout the day, less evenly through the night – and a lot at weekends. If the computer is on, a new email announces itself politely with a beep, as it were a knock on the electronic door, asking to be opened.
During an all-night sitting in the 1970’s, I collected by mail from the Members' Post Office. One irate constituent demanded that I ring him the moment I read his letter. I did so; at 6.25 am.
There are now new ways of finding out how we respond. Under the brand name “WriteToThem” 29,976 email messages were sent to MPs last year. 22,232 people answered the feedback.
Tom Steinberg, who runs the mysociety.org project, which set up writetothem.com, said the overall findings of the survey showed that it was a "myth" for MPs to pretend they were too swamped by emails to respond.
He said: "These 29 MPs (who answered all their emails) are doing a truly top-notch job of responding to their constituents. We hope that such large numbers of MPs doing so well will finally put to rest the myth that it is impossible to cope with the email workloads most MPs face, and so will motivate improved response rates at the bottom end of the scale." My performance is exposed in this league table.
One of my colleagues, Canute like, decided some time ago to resist the onset of the electronic tide. He had no email address. But his constituents discovered my room was near his, and sent me emails for him, asking me to print them out and stick them under his door. I am happy to say he too has now succumbed and can be seen chained to his keyboard like the rest of us.
PS. The problems with the mailbox are small compared with another problem. I have placed an advertisement in the local paper to sell my car. The last time I sold a car, I was paid in cash. If this happens again, how do I get the cash into my bank account without having my collar felt by the local constabulary for the Tunbridge Securitas job?