MPs have spent over 2774 hours on Twitter in the past year. Photo: Getty
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“Twittering is for the birds!”: MPs have spent 115 days tweeting in a year

Is the increasing amount of time our MPs spend sending tweets impinging on their more traditional engagement with voters, and each other?

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue