More than 70 per cent of MPs use Twitter. Photo: Getty
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To watch the political elite debate, head to Twitter, not Westminster

Twitter, once the preserve of teens and techies, is now the medium of choice for the political establishment too. 

Twitter has become the latest arena of political debate and campaigning in the UK, breaking down barriers between politicians and voters. It also affords MPs a channel of communication over the head of spin doctors and the press.

Uptake by MPs was sluggish at first. Many politicians were initially fretful about the security of social media accounts and cognisant of the inherent risks of communicating in real-time online. Such has been the inexorable rise of Twitter, however, that MPs are now all but expected to be on it: more than 70 per cent of Britain’s 650 MPs have signed up (464 according to the Telegraph’s curated list).

While a few MPs delegate their bot-like accounts to their researchers to retweet bland praise or parrot propaganda tweeted by party HQ, many MPs take the helm themselves, and some take it very seriously indeed.

MP and President of the Lib Dems Tim Farron managed an astonishing 17,421 tweets last year (50 tweets a day, or one every twenty minutes on average), making him the most prolific British politician on the site.

In total UK MPs sent almost a million tweets last year, up 28 per cent on the previous year and an increase of more than 230 per cent from 2011. Ben Carson, head of product at social media monitoring service Yatterbox, commented in December: The level of engagement by politicians on social media has exploded in the last two years… It is now beyond doubt that social media is a critical part of how an MP communicates with the outside world.

Admittedly many MPs (especially those with hopes of promotion) take their lead from party headquarter Twitter feeds, and are vigilant about staying “on message” about party policies, mixing it up with the odd constituency selfie tweet to prove their commitment to their local voters.

But other politicians have exploited the ability to eschew the iron grip of their central party on messaging, by creating, and presiding over, this unique channel of communication.

Twitter has certainly proven an effective activism tool for smaller campaigns, useful not only for promoting a cause, but also publicising an MP's contribution to furthering it. Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy, the party’s most prolific tweeter, has tweeted tirelessly in support of her crusade against payday lenders. With almost 49,000 followers, her reach has sent the issue soaring up the agenda and allowed Creasy to become the face of the campaign against it.

In addition to its political function, it has boosted the personal image of many MPs, who have benefited from revealing shades of personality through their 140-character messages. Tweeting in an informal, speech-like way about traffic jams, weekend plans and hobbies reinforces their human side – no trivial thing in an era of low trust in politicians.

Some have even developed comic online personae. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Tory MP for Daventry, sends out a steady stream of one-liners into the ether. Recent gems include: “Do German vegetarians drive Volksvegans?” and “Bicycles can’t stand on their own because they are nearly always two tired”.

While personality plays a part in political tweeting, the most commonly tweeted about subjects by MPs remain “serious” political ones. The political occasions that racked up the most tweets last year were the announcements of the Budget and the Autumn Statement – with more than 5,000 tweets sent out by MPs about both events.

The informality of Twitter allows politicians to receive, as well as transmit, ideas too. Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, has gained a reputation for replying to constituents and debating online, for example, embodying a sense of direct democracy that is popular with voters. 

With the freedom that the internet entails comes responsibility and some MPs run close to the line. In April, the Conservative party vice chair Michael Fabricant was sacked for tweeting about the party's besieged Culture Secretary: “Maria Miller has resigned. Well, about time.” It was the latest in a series of social media offerings from the mischievous MP that were viewed as less than helpful by CCHQ.

Fabricant had the last word though, using Twitter to broadcast the news of his political demise, tweeting: “Been asked to resign as Vice Chairman, refused, so sacked over HS2 and my views on a recent Cabinet Minister. Still available 4 speeches etc”.

He found himself mired in deeper controversy in June when he tweeted about leftwing journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown that he could not appear with her on television, or else “I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by punching her in the throat.” A Twitterstorm of outrage ensued, in which Fabricant was derided as misogynistic.

Embarassing gaffes are also easy to make on Twitter. Labour MP Jack Dromey, husband of deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, elicited ridicule last November for “favouriting” a gay pornography website, which he claimed was a mistake. It emerged at the same time that the official No 10 Twitter account had followed an escort agency account, which officials blamed on an "auto-follow" facility that was employed up to 2009.

In recognition of the importance of Twitter for politicians, Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, has even launched a series of annual awards for the best, and the worst MPs on the site. The politicians’ ratings are based on how entertaining and informative they are, but also their engagement with constituents and the regularity with which they tweet.

Labour shadow health minister, Jamie Reed topped the survey last summer for retaining a sense of authencity and humour (rare for a frontbencher on Twitter), while Tory minister Brandon Lewis was crowned worst for the “self-regarding triviality” of his tweets.

As more politicians join Twitter and take enthusiastically to the medium, the impact of social media on our political process will continue to grow.

This piece forms part of our Social Media Week. Click here to read the introduction, and here to see the other pieces in the series.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

Photo: Getty
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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.