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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.