This post was originally written for the 2020 Parliament Week for the Political Studies Association. UK Parliament Week is an annual festival that engages people from across the UK with their UK Parliament, explores what it means to them and empowers them to get involved. For more information click here.
When we come to think about British Politics, our attention is immediately drawn to the formal Burkean structures in place which allows representation to happen. Elections, Parliament, the Executive and so on. However, in the world of ‘everyday politics’ – that is how people interact with politics in an everyday basis, we increasingly find informal politics is how much of the citizenry seek to have their voice heard.
The UK has a vast and rich history of this form of everyday, and informal, political engagement, one such route has been through petitions. These documents, signed by a collective of citizens, seek to influence representatives in Westminster on specific matters. Petitions serve as an important secondary function: to act as the voice of voter’s in-between elections. And since no representative wants to stray too far away from public opinion, for risk of losing re-election, this informal everyday form of political participation has played an important role in directing the actions of MPs in-between elections.
However, this ‘informal’ method of political representation became a central route to having one’s voice heard – especially by those without suffrage. The Chartist movement, a cause dedicated to obtaining working-class males the right to vote, used petitions as a strategy to achieve their aims. In 1842, the Chartist ‘Grand Petition’ had over 3.3 million signatures and was said to be more than six miles in length. At a time when the UK population was 15.9 million, this petition accounted for roughly 20% of the population and when less than 6% had the right to vote. Likewise, the abolitionist movement in the seventeenth century often used petitions to campaign for Parliament to outlaw slavery – many of these being signed and supported by women who at the time did not have the right to vote (Knights, 2009:40).
The number of petitions declined in the nineteenth century, arguably due to increases of the franchise, or the availability of other methods to have one’s voice heard by representatives. But there has been a noticeable revival of petitions in recent years. Online petition websites and then later formal recognition of e-petitions through the https://petition.parliament.uk/ website have sparked a re-emergence of the form.
More recent developments in online communication through emails and social media have opened the door for citizens to become active within politics more frequently and informally, without the mediation of the press or the organisational requirements of a petition. While emails reduced the cost of communicating with MPs, it’s the networking and instantaneousness of social media which has shifted the representative-citizen relationship.
Taking to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, many citizens follow political news from a range of sources. This includes news from their local MP, who provide live updates on what they are currently doing. Citizens have come to use these same platforms provide their immediate reactions and views through comments. Occasionally this has had disastrous results for representatives. A prime example of this being in 2014, when Emily Thornberry MP shared a tweet of a white-van and the English flag in a demeaning way, she was quickly attacked by a large online audience of citizens who criticised her for being snobbish against the white-working class. Shortly after, she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. But for many MPs, they have come to view social media as an important way to hear from their constituents, whom they both seek to represent and attempt to maintain good relations with for the purposes of re-election.
This isn’t to say MPs have come to use these platforms without complaint. Throughout my research with MPs, I’ve come to discover that while most enjoy the more personal and direct relationship with citizens through social media, they also question its representativeness. After all, what people think on Twitter might not reflect the views of their constituents. Likewise, while these platforms have enabled more citizens to get in touch with their MP, representatives are keen to show that often they don’t have the time, nor the staff, to respond to every message they receive. Furthermore, while social media has made MPs more accessible to voters, it’s also made MPs more open to abuse and harassment.
But that being said, MPs are incentivised to keep social media audiences in their good books, as they provide a useful insight into the eyes of the population, and what they think on specific matters. Likewise, cultivating a positive relationship with their constituents on a day-to-day basis will help shape their image as a constituency MP. As a result, they are mindful that social media has become a powerful tool to hold them to account. It is similar to the role of petition of old, but more individually focused on each particular representative.
So, the question is, how important are these acts of ‘everyday’ or ‘informal’ political participation? While this short blog doesn’t nearly cover the breadth and depth of citizens everyday political communication; such as protests, pressure-groups and social movements. It does suggest that in-between each election, citizens participation through communicating with their representative or petitions, has an important function within our democracy. It provides MPs with a clear signal of citizens views and values and most certainly keeps representatives on their toes.
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