This post is going to be a bit of a stream of consciousness post, I am not sure where it will end up in the way of conclusions, but I think it will be interesting. If you want some background on the role of a whip, Wikipedia has a good page about it.
Social media has the potential to mobilise people and provides a fast way for people to express opinions. With good use of social media analytics, it is possible to extract information from the mass of data that social media generates. How this information gets used is what makes social media so powerful. It can help to influence decision makers, both in government and the private sector.
As Morgan Godfrey points out in his post on The Daily Blog, “Mobilisation is more important than persuasion”. Now he is talking about the issue of getting out the vote during an election. But the same thing applies to convincing MPs. Mobilising public support, and making this public support obvious, is as useful as persuasion when it comes to changing an MPs vote. .
In New Zealand the whip is pretty much absolute. As Graeme Edgeler said about the strength of the whip in NZ:
(It is Stronger)Than most countries, period, I would have thought. It’s almost absolute.
Now it is beyond the intent of this blog post to discuss if that is a good thing or not. The last time, that I know of, that an MP crossing the floor caused major issues was Marilyn Waring, who brought down the Muldoon Government in 1984. There have been attempts to influence the voting intentions of MPs via social media in New Zealand, but they have so far been unsuccessful.
In the past there was a time lag, and a cost, to contacting MPs to give them feed back on issues. In the past you had to write a letter to them, or to the editor, then you could make phone calls to their offices. However, now a days there is email, Facebook and Twitter. It is now possible to generate massive social media responses to issues. It is already replacing mail and phone calls as the de facto measure of public views.
However the shift from First Past the Post to MMP has resulted in List MPs who are dependent on the Party for their position in Parliament. Sure, under FPP there were those who were still dependent on the party for their position, but equally there were MPs who could have left their party and retained their seat. But this isn’t an option for List MPs, e.g. Bredan Horan. This reinforces the strength of the whip. If the party is displeased with a List MP, they are gone, e.g. Paul Quinn.
In the US and the UK MPs cast personal votes. They have to be there, or provide proxies, for their vote to be counted. Each MP gets to decide how they will vote on an issue by issue basis, plus each MP is directly elected by constituents. This means they are not as dependent on political parties to retain their seats.
Social media has the ability to influence people and organisation’s decisions, but I think with regard to Parliament in New Zealand, the whips as it stands now is too strong, and the electoral system too skewed towards giving parties power, that the potential that social media has to influence events won’t be realised. MPs have too much to loose by annoying their parties, and not enough to gain. We may see one off examples of the power of social media influencing individual MPs on individual issues. But I don’t think it will have the power to break the whip in New Zealand that happens in the US.