Typing 140 characters or fewer into a smartphone is now one of the most prominent political weapons in the otherwise often rusty and dusty armoury of our MPs and peers. Before, all they had was an echoey rebuttal in an empty debate chamber once in a while, or endless Saturday mornings thrusting ill-designed leaflets into the hands of irritated and mid-breakfast constituents. Now they have an immediate, free, modern way of making contact with the outside world: Twitter.
A lot has been written about how our nimble-fingered (not a phrase they should use to describe themselves) parliamentarians are embracing modern technology to engage with voters; my colleague Lucy Fisher’s recent excellent piece on the ways Westminster uses Twitter is an example.
A report, which came out at the end of last week, by the company Westminster Public Affairs, has found that from 29 July 2013 to 28 July 2014, MPs have spent a combined total of over 115 days (or more than 2,774 hours) sending tweets.
This is a massive increase on the amount of time they spent on Twitter in 2011, which the same company calculated as a total of 1,000 hours. And 350 more MPs are now using Twitter than in the year of the last election, 2010, with 461 MPs (71 per cent) now having Twitter accounts.
The most Twitter-happy MP over the past year has been Respect MP George Galloway, and the top tweeters from the three main parties are the Tories’ Michael Fabricant, Labour’s Karl Turner (with Stella Creasy a close second) and Lib Dem President Tim Farron. What’s clear from these accounts is that the most successful parliamentary tweeters actually bring personality into their online missives, rather than just sounding like a chopped up press release.
However, is the amount of time politicians are spending on the social networking service taking away from their more traditional work as local representatives?
Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, who is on the Digital Democracy Commission – a little-known body set up by the Speaker to try and bring some measure of order into parliament’s relationship with technology – is cautious about MPs’ use of Twitter.
“It's important, it has a role,” she tells me, “but actually as Robert Halfon [an MP who also sits on the Commission] would say, it's a social network, not a compulsory public service. And I think you've got to really manage expectations. If people tweet me, in 140 characters you can't get enough information to deal with it as for instance casework or proper, serious... I mean, I've had tweets about heavyweight foreign affairs policy, and in 140 characters you can't get the nuances across or anything!”
She highlights the importance of talking to people face to face, rather than relying on tweeting for all communication: “Dealing with real people, rather than Twitter, [is] quite important. I'm meeting people face to face. That has a place, a very important place... People often knock personal contact – it's perhaps not the most time-efficient, but I think it matters a lot that I see people where they live, I meet people in the street, in their environment and people will tell me things that they won't necessarily write to me, or come and see me about...
“The other thing about Twitter is that not everyone's on Twitter. And my constituents are digitally divided. I may represent Shoreditch, but not everybody is living off their smartphone in Hackney, so I have to bear that in mind.”
Hillier also points out the added pressure that the need to tweet can pile on to a politician. “There are some people who live their lives on Twitter, and do have a constant running dialogue. I have to draw some limits. I'm also receiving emails and texts and phone calls... You’ve got to have a divide between work and time-off sometimes; we don’t get much.”
Colleagues of Hillier’s, such as Creasy and Turner, are examples of MPs who keep up an almost 24/7 conversation online, and on the Tory side, Fabricant is another well-known Twitter personality beyond the confines of a Westminster audience. I remember his comments to me about his use of the site when I interviewed him last summer:
“Twitter has been more effective to me for my colleagues knowing where I come from than actually the last 23 years in the Commons have. I always remember the former chief whip Patrick McLoughlin saying, ‘if you want to keep a secret, speak in the House of Commons’”.
He even revealed that he’d given the Chancellor some tweet-tips: “I was saying to George Osborne that, if tweets are always totally on-message, no one is going to read them. To get your message across, you’ve got to be amusing, and sometimes not be overtly political at all… No campaign should be boring, because you turn off.”
Yet there are still MPs who haven’t signed up to the site, and many remain unconvinced. Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet, was one of the MPs to table an amendment in 2011 intended to ban the use of Twitter in the House of Commons chamber (which failed). On the subject of rocketing Twitter use among MPs, he tells me:
“I do not tweet myself, abhor the apparent obsession with celebrity, and remain of the view that the chamber and the committees of the House of Commons are places for debate, not instant electronic communication with the ‘communicariat’ and wish that more time was spent upon detailed, serious and attentive consideration of issues and less – or preferably no – time was spent upon instant comment.
“Twittering is for the birds!” he adds.