Should we be allowed to see MPs’ voting records?

Sites like TheyWorkForYou have led to a greater use of parliamentary voting records as a means of holding MPs to account, but it can also lead to misunderstandings about the position taken by the person voting, and to those absent due to maternity or illness being branded lazy. Ben Worthy and Cat Morgan discuss how their research has highlighted some of the problems and benefits of this additional data being made more readily available.

Watching Westminster has got a great deal easier. Since 2005, a whole array of new formal and informal disclosure tools mean we can watch, analyse and verify what MPs and peers are doing much more easily, often at the push of a button. Our Leverhulme project looks across this shifting landscape of searchable digital platforms of MPs’ expenses data, register of interests declarations, and Freedom of Information  requests.  

Most famously, at the centre of these transparency ecosystems stands TheyWorkForYou (TWFY), which monitors MPs’ voting and other activities. Created by volunteers in 2004 and run by mySociety since 2005, it allows us to see individual MPs’ (and peers’) voting records far more easily than in the past. For each MP it offers up, as the website describes, ‘a summary of their stances on important policy areas such as combating climate change or reforming the NHS’, described with phrases such as ‘generally voted for’, ‘always voted against’, and ‘never voted for’. Elsewhere it lists their full record, appearances, and declarations on the register of interests. It averages around 200,000 to 300,000 monthly visits, though this jumps amid elections or scandals.

And some MPs are not happy. A tweet by John Ashmore summarised, perhaps rather too pithily, the two reasons for their unhappiness or concern:

The first worry is that the voting data offers a distorted view. It doesn’t discriminate, for example, between certain types of votes and over-simplifies the rather complex realities. This means, as Stephen Bush recently explained, Green MP Caroline Lucas appears to have ‘voted a mixture of for and against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas’ because she opposed, and voted against, legislation she considered too weak. Some of the most controversial votes, such as the Free School Meals vote, only make sense in the light of the fact it was an Opposition Day vote, something the site doesn’t explain either. Our research has shown how the data is biased and unevenly focused on, for example, high profile or controversial MPs or particular votes. Aggregated data easily becomes a metric to measure, compare and create yardsticks for what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad‘ MP, giving the illusion of objectivity and measurability.

MPs’ unhappiness has gone public. Thirty Conservative MPs published an open letter to the Guardian in 2019 complaining about being misrepresented on their climate change records, and a full 50 complained in a letter to the chief executive of mySociety in 2021 that ‘misleading‘ data ‘misrepresented’ their positions on climate change.

It isn’t just what the data shows; it’s what it doesn’t show. Data only measures what is there. As the journalist Marie Le Conte put it, ‘sharing screenshots of an MP’s voting history misses out vital pieces of context’. TWFY contains no data on whipping instructions, and yet, as I endlessly tell my students, party and party loyalty are the key to (most) of what happens in the House of Commons. Moreover, the data only highlights some areas, such as voting or expenses. It could be argued that it even over-measures these, creating too much emphasis on ‘cliff hanger’ votes or MPs’ spending, leaving vital activities such as constituency work hidden in a kind of data-less darkness.

The second concern is who is using the data and where it goes. The worry is that it isn’t being used by the ‘public’ for a kind of democratic enlightenment but is abused by those wishing to push a certain message. Users of TWFY are quite numerous but definitely skewed. There is a small proportion of new users, but mostly, they are the ‘usual suspects’. Analysis of found users to be a mixture of the engaged public, private companies, NGOs, and the media, with most users already engaged or interested in politics. We found that searches focus on government MPs in particular, as well as on controversial or high profile votes. More generally, the concern, as ever, is that overly represented white men are watching well-off, overly represented white men.

Perhaps more to the point, political groups of many shades and sizes do use this data to push their agendas. While TWFY is careful to explain the context of the data and asks those using it to tweet with care, this doesn’t always happen. This runs from the national media to the regional press and even small local media outlets, which sometimes leads to MPs being asked in advance how they might vote. This then provokes, in turn, explanation, resistance and further conflict. Data can sometimes close the gap between voters and legislators, but it can make for greater conflict and controversy too. Does Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record show he was more anti-Europe than Thatcher or always on the right side of history? Take your pick.

However, there are several good democratic reasons as to why, despite its limitations, TWFY should not be ’shut down’.

First, it’s important to remember that, if we were back in 1995, to even know how an MP voted you needed the local press to report on a vote or to take a pretty long and winding journey to wherever you could find a physical copy of Hansard. The mere existence of TWFY is a step forward in transparency.

Second, even if it’s only rough, it allows you to see where an MP stands. To take the example of climate change, Conservative MPs should perhaps be careful with their public complaints. While the details may be skewed, the general point that some Conservative MPs have a worrying attitude to climate change is broadly right. Other data backs this up. A recent survey showed that Conservative MPs were less likely than their own voters to prioritise environmental issues. Conservative MPs have more donations from fossil fuel companies, and one in 15 Conservative MPs seem to believe climate change is a myth. Nor is it only Conservatives, as the first complaint over climate and voting records was a complaint by Labour MPs to the Advertising Standards Authority back in 2005. This sort of complaint at being misrepresented is also far from new. MPs made similar claims of a ‘narrow focus’ and ‘misrepresentation’ with the arrival of the press and sketch writers in the 1840s. Neither Charles Dickens nor TWFY were, in their time, welcome in Westminster.

It’s also a bit rich for MPs to complain. TWFY cite that 2% of all users are within the parliamentary estate, and that they use the data for a mixture of reasons; research on other MPs, defence of their own records, and championing their reputation.

Third, even if it’s not used by the public, data still reaches them. Once published, it is then picked up or developed by the media and campaigners, as well as across social media. Outside of the usual suspects, academics are significant data users, creating detailed analyses of which MPs blocked Brexit.

It’s not only the users but also the uses that vary, and data can be deployed in a seemingly infinite variety of ways. It is deployed heuristically to understand MPs’ voting positions, or inferentially, around lobbying or donations. Voting data has created several spin-off innovations, such as sites watching particular issues like climate change voting records. It is also used to predict and anticipate rebellions, with rolling rebel lists identifying unhappy MPs, such as before the COVID-19 vote of December 2021 or Labour MPs rebelling over the MI5 bill. After the controversial Owen Paterson ‘standards’ vote, data was quickly found on how many of those supporting Paterson had an outside income or were themselves under investigation. Data can also inform us about where they voted, as well as how. It seems that this summer 12 MPs, including the Conservative Chief Whip, voted by proxy from the England vs Denmark game at Euro 2020.

Finally, it does sometimes have a democratic impact, and a lot of monitoring fizzles into an angry wave but not always. Even then, as an aside, calling users ‘internet half wits’ or ‘meme-merchants’ ignores the increasingly important role of memes, graphics and images in engaging the public with politics.

Our study has shown that monitoring and watching MPs does make them more accountable. MPs share more explanations and justifications in Hansard, on Twitter or in the local press – some of which are anticipated (such as by ‘how will your MP vote’ articles) or reported on after the action (such as social media posts saying, ‘I voted for/against X’). In 2021, Conservative MPs who voted against the government’s COVID-19 lockdown measures and tier system took to Twitter to explain their decisions – making memes themselves both before and after key votes.

Publishing voting data can also have anticipated or reactive consequences. In the weeks after the Paterson votes, amid all the possible reforms that might come of it, some MPs quietly resigned from their second jobs.

It can even help push along institutional change. In 2013, the Sun used voting record data to create a list of the country’s ‘laziest MPs’ featuring Lucy Powell, who quickly pointed out that she was on maternity leave. Not only was the article withdrawn and an apology made, but the controversy helped the push for MPs on parental leave to be allowed to vote by proxy, which was instituted in 2019.

The data on TFWY is accessible, user-friendly, and searchable, making watching Westminster easier than ever before. Data can be distorted, over-simplified and used out of context while simultaneously providing transparency about MPs’ and peers’ activities. Many MPs feel under continuous surveillance, creating greater accountability for their actions, which is no bad thing. When using the available date on parliamentary voting, it is worth remembering that although the media report on voting records like football results, they are often just the beginning of a political process rather than the end.

The project on which the above draws is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. More information on the project can be found on the Leverhulme website.

About the authors

Dr Ben Worthy is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He tweets as @benworthy1

Cat Morgan is a Research Assistant in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.