The Blog

Facebook Has Made Me a Better MP

I suspect in some ways the Ancient Greeks would have embraced social media as a medium for complimenting direct democracy and involving citizens in the political process, because it helps stimulate conversation, foster greater understanding of the political process and can act as a breeding ground for ideas.

Not long ago I celebrated my 50th birthday with friends, family and even an Elvis impersonator. But the milestone set me thinking about how being a parliamentarian has changed since I was first elected as a reasonably fresh-faced MP back in 1997. And perhaps the biggest single noticeable change has been the advent of social media.

I started as a MP in the pre-twitter era and now find social media absolutely indispensable to my daily work on behalf of residents in Carshalton and Wallington. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that social media has made me a better MP today than I was when I was first elected all those years ago, because it has helped me connect with my constituents in a way which simply wasn't possible in 1997.

Politics has changed a lot since 1997. During the last televised 2010 General Election debate between the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, 154,342 tweets appeared containing various terms from the debate, and coming in at 26.77 tweets per second from 33,095 different people. It emphasised that shift we have seen in how people consume media and respond to it.

In fact looking back far further, I suspect in some ways the Ancient Greeks would have embraced social media as a medium for complimenting direct democracy and involving citizens in the political process, because it helps stimulate conversation, foster greater understanding of the political process and can act as a breeding ground for ideas.

So in amongst the many tweets, status updates and posts from the election debate, is the vox populi - an understanding about how the public feels and want they want from their elected representatives. And that's why politicians need to wise up and pay attention to social media if they are to succeed in modern politics.

Hillary Clinton quite rightly described social media as "a new nervous system for our planet", grasping the potential it has for recalibrating the relationship politicians have with the electorate and increasing the level of understanding we politicians have about our constituents' needs.

For me, social media has proved a vital tool for reaching my constituents, engaging them in conversation and delivering on their priorities.

It's made me a better MP because it has forced me to rethink how I was engaging with local people and modify my approach to take account of how consumer behaviour has changed since I was first elected in 1997. It has also helped reaffirm my belief that most people will engage with politics if it is pitched at them in the right way.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard people quite wrongly deride young people for not engaging in politics and current affairs. But for me, it's simply lazy criticism and misunderstands the dynamic which should exist between politicians and the public. Because it is up to politicians to cross no man's land and find the right tools to engage with those who appear disinterested. And in the US, it's clear that social media is actually helping debunk the myth that young people and students are turned off by politics.

According to Facebook's UK and Ireland Policy Director, Simon Milner, with whom I hosted a recent fringe event at Lib Dem Party Conference, "the Facebook population is more politically engaged that the rest of the population" and that alone suggests that there is an audience out there on social media with a real appetite for interaction with candidates.

In fact Milner's view is backed up by Pew's research from the US which found that people on Facebook are 2.5 times more likely to come out and support their candidate at a rally or public event; 43% more likely to vote; and crucially 57% more likely to persuade a friend or co-worker to vote. So the truth is that young people are interested, but only if politicians communicate with them in the right medium. It's up to politicians to innovate and keep up with changes in the way people consume media, and right now one of the booming mediums is social media.

But quite apart from evidence from across the pond, those who criticise the current generation essentially misunderstand the role of an MP. It's our duty to get out there and engage young people, not sit in Westminster and expect them to come to us. And if you're not prepared to do that, you have no right to be an MP or profess to speak for all of sections of your community.

And that's one of the reasons I love social media - it provides me with a vehicle to reach constituents in the spaces they are most comfortable - they don't have to trek to my office or call during office hours. So I now hear from school pupils who understand more about my role as their local MP, because they have seen what I do on a daily basis via social media. And because they understand how I can help, they are more willing to get in contact and ask me to act. What's more they can do so in 140 characters or via a direct message.

I believe the next step is to take the tried and tested methods of political engagement and make them work online as well. That's why, as well as hosting regular advice surgeries in church halls and sports centres throughout my constituency, I've also been hosting regular online advice surgeries via Facebook Chat for several years - the first MP in the UK to do so.

Once every month or so I'll invite all 5,000 of my Facebook friends to an online advice surgery - simply log-in and use the chat facility to talk to me privately online. It's a chance to raise concerns over local amenities, housing, university worries, crime and anything else I can possibly help with. Yes, it involves a lot of work and generates a lot more work for my team of expert caseworkers, but it is well worth it. And quite frankly it's my job as an MP.

But the occasional online surgery isn't enough, because ultimately social media is a constant, fluid two-way conversation. There is a whole host of innovative and common-sense ways one can use social media to complement traditional work as an MP and help foster understanding of an MP's role.

These days when I'm about to head off to meet Southern Rail to discuss train services in my constituency, I'll ask my followers and friends via social media if there are any questions they would like me to put to rail bosses. Questions typically flood in. I then put each and every one to the team at Southern Rail, following up on any points they are unable to answer on the spot. When I return to the office or find myself with a spare moment, I respond directly to my constituents posting the answers I have received from Southern Rail, thus illustrating the role an MP can play in getting straight to the heart of any problems people may have.

I only wish more MPs were doing the same, because I believe that if they were, the public would begin to understand that the vast majority of MPs work very hard and are in public life for the right reasons. I also believe the public would start to see more 'bang for their buck' and understanding the role MPs play in getting things done. And it's by innovating in this way that I believe social media has made me a better MP.

Social media has helped me overcome the barriers that previously existed to having that kind of relationship with my constituents. Instead of assuming that people are simply apathetic, social media recognises that people live busy lives. And we as MPs must recognise this too in order to fulfil our roles effectively as champions for the views of our community.