Continuous Virtual Surveillance? Monitory Democracy at Westminster

Ben Worthy
Senior Lecturer in Politics
Birkbeck College

Stefani Langehennig
Post-doctoral Researcher
Birkbeck College

Our new Leverhume Trust project looks at how new data sources and web platforms have made it easier to monitor Parliament and its members in a space outside of the traditional spaces of parliament. The project combines analysis of media stories and social media with case studies and surveys to map out who is using all of this data and what impact it is having, both on those being watched and those doing the watching.

It draws on ‘Monitory democracy’ theory, which argues that democracy has become less about voting and more about continuous surveillance, as a rolling series of transparency mechanisms constantly open up new areas of public life to scrutiny and challenge, outside traditional channels and institution spaces. Monitory ideas, developed by thinkers such as Michael Schudson and John Keane, sit alongside other ‘conflictual’ theories of democracy, such as Rosanvallon’s conception of ‘counter-democracy’, or Mouffe’s ‘agonistic pluralism’.

Taken together, this data creates a kind of continuous scrutiny in a virtual space, which constantly expands. Beyond expenses you can see, for example, which former MPs still have Parliamentary passes or even if someone with a Parliament IP address has made changes to Wikipedia.

Yet just as the spaces of parliament shape who is important, and reinforce hierarchies, so does the virtual space. An analysis of users of the monitoring website found a tendency for people browsing Westminster data to focus on certain high profile MPs (such as the Prime Minister or leader of the opposition), members connected with controversy or certain high profile debates. Data are used to get a sense of a politician’s position on an issue or assess what they have done. It is, however, skewed in terms of gender and Female MPs suffered more from the expenses crisis. The Sun had to apologise to one female MP on its list of ‘lazy’ MPs.

Much may depend on who is looking at the data. It can have a very different impact depending on if it is a curious member of the public fact-finding, a journalist hunting a story, a voter making up their mind or an aggrieved local party member looking to cause trouble. Voting record data has played a part in attempts at deselection. A lack of transparency around the register of interests and expenses has triggered two of the three recall votes since 2015.

But this data can only tell us so much. It also raises the question of how those being watched respond. Have these measures become ‘Engines of Anxiety‘ for those being watched, who then react accordingly. It has been claimed that Written Question numbers increased when TheyWorkForYou used it as measure of activity, and it had unintended consequences for issues such as proxy voting. Here the paper will compare the impact of the new data with the introduction of television camera in the late 1980s.

The data and numbers help the public to know and understand more, more simply and make it easier to hold politicians to account outside of the traditional spaces and routes. Quantification, measures and numbers offer us the illusion of certainty. Yet the numbers themselves are trapped in a narrative, a familiar story of expenses, interests and black and white views. The danger is that our new data-driven democracy reinforces an age-old tale about politicians.

October 8, 2020