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.

 

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.