“It’s a pointless exercise” “You just get the standard party line”. “They don’t answer your questions, they just use it to pump out pat responses, copied and pasted from the last letter from someone who asked  similar questions the week before”.   “Sometimes you don’t even get a reply”.

That probably typifies most people’s experience, including mine, of writing to their MP (or their local councillor). What was once a mainstay of democratic action – writing to your MP - has turned into a lonely disheartening process because it has been hijacked by a party machine that uses it to trot out the standard party line.  

This time I did something different: I wrote an open letter to my MP and published it online for everyone to see and I told my MP that I was doing so. It was the longest, most detailed letter that I have written.  Here are the outcomes so far along with what I have learned

  1. A detailed response: I got the fastest reply I have ever had from an MP. It was a turnaround of four days. It was also the most detailed reply that I have received - notwithstanding the somewhat patronising tone in which it was written. Clearly it meant something to my MP that a lot of other people potentially might see both my letter and her reply.
  2. High number of visitors. Both my letter and her response attracted well over 400 visitors (note visitors, not hits which were far more) over a 10 day period. This is a sizeable number for what is a local blog containing two pages at the time, one for each letter. I have achieved far less visitor volume for local blogs on similar subjects that I expended a far greater effort to promote.   
  3. Wider conversation and engagement - I got a fair number of comments on both my letter and my MP’s response. People were engaged and exercised by the questions I asked and the points made in both letters in a way they would not have been if conversation had been confined to a Tweet, a Facebook Like or a hurried conversation on a street corner.

 If I had written to my MP in the normal way, exactly two people would have seen it: myself and my MP.  My letter would then have been filed or binned.   End of story. Only this story has no end because both letters remain only one click away and even now, with no effort on my side, the blog continues to receive a small but steady stream of visitors  

Nor would there have been any wider conversation where people were free to comment on either letter, agree or disagree.  While an ordinary blog can still promote a similar conversation, I doubt very much I would have had the same level of visitor numbers and engagement.

Of the three outcomes I listed above, for me the most effective has been a genuine engagement with other local people.  Even supposing that only half the numbers of visitors were local to my area (200) half again were returning visitors (100) and of those only half fully read both letters, that still  means I engaged 50 more local people than had I simply written a private letter to my MP.  That for me made it more than worthwhile to have taken the time to write that letter.

But why does any of this matter at all?

Because we - all of us - urgently need to wrest back the democratic ground lost to over centralised party politics whose agenda is increasingly shaped by corporate interests rather than their constituents. Moreover that agenda is relayed to a general public by privately owned mainstream media who can make or break a political party, never mind a politician’s career.  That threat alone screens out other conversations, silences dissenting voices and filters out news and issues of vital importance to all of us. And with the gagging law now in force, charities and online platforms such as 38Degrees that advocate on our behalf now have to tread very carefully. It is no an exaggeration to say that our democracy is under attack. 

We can only counter this trend going back to basics and initiating local grassroots activism starting with a simple letter to our MP. Let it be about any subject that we care passionately about, but let it be thoughtful, informative and published online.

What would our democracy feel like if there was not one open letter but hundreds of open letters that triggered thousands of local conversations up and down the country? Better informed, more engaged, more critical and questioning  on key subjects from privatisation of public services  to food banks, from inequality to climate change. 

While National conversations on platforms from the Guardian to Greenpeace are no less important   these can feel remote and abstract if not pulled down to the local level and spread across local social networks that in turn, give rise to conversations that have a more personal, immediate,  in-your-face impact, ones that galvanise local networks to come up with ideas and take actions that go beyond ‘clicktivism’.  I am talking here of   a ‘mass localism’: a spreading fire of grassroots activism that is lawful, democratic, sustained, well informed, willing to act and willing to call to account those who claim to speak on our behalf at election time, but then spend the next five years doing anything but.

I suggest all this begins with the very humble step of writing to your MP – but one adapted to the social media age we live.At present we have a diminished democracy composed of political parties who rely far too much on corporate donations and who deploy the same marketing tools as their corporate sponsors:   a politics reduced to the focus group, the sound bite, the leaflet drop, the cold call and now the Android app. Not forgetting the traditional five minute party political broadcast that has millions of us reaching for our TV console. 

Real change, a reclaimed democracy, can only ever come from below and it begins with you and me.   We just have to trust that there are others out there, willing to take similar steps when they see what we do.

So if you are interested in testing this out for yourself, here are my tips:

  1. Create a free blog site using WordPress or Blogger. Both do more or less the same thing but I prefer Wordpress because I can embed RSS news feeds or Twitter hashtags in the margin which relate to the topic I am writing about. Keep the site really simple and build it round two main pages – your letter  and your MP’s (or Councillor) response.
  2. Craft a letter to your MP which is reasonably thoughtful, informed as well as passionate. Do a bit of research first so that you inform other readers and provoke them to reflect on the points you make. On the website you can include links so that they can check and corroborate the claims you make.   Don’t overdo the passion though - If your letter is an abusive and angry tirade, your MP may feel justified in ignoring you. You may also put off other web visitors, who would otherwise engage with you.
  3. Use WriteToThem to copy and paste the text from your Word document into your letter. Follow the instructions carefully. Note: if, like me, you embed a letter with hyperlinks to sources which back up your argument, these will be lost when you paste your text into WriteToThem. However they will still show in the blog and you can remind your MP that a copy of your letter, together with hyperlinked sources, is available for all to see online.
  4. Include a separate page on your blog showing how your MP has voted in relation to the subject you are writing about; better still, make reference to that in your letter. This is one more lever to pull in your efforts to promote transparency and accountability. I also put a separate link to my MP’s voting record on all issues - and got a lot of hits and some comments by email from people who had no idea their MP had voted on other issues of particular interest to them. You can get full details on this at TheyWorkForYou
  5. Share widely! Especially share among your own local face to face networks. It doesn’t matter if people don’t agree with you; the whole point is to provoke informed reflection and debate, to reconnect people with the democratic process. Share also using twitter and Facebook but try and keep the conversations as local as possible.
  6. When you get a reply from your MP/Councillor, avoid the temptation to send off a quick riposte. Take your time, leave it open; let others comment on his/her response.  
  7. Tweet your MP every time you have a comment on his/her reply and use appropriate hashtags to extend your reach.

Those are the basics. However, with hindsight there are three other things I would do:

  • The first is to embed a Google alert News feed  or twitter hashtag into the blog which pulls in news and updates relevant to the subject you are writing about
  • The second is to create an Information Resource page. I called mine Fact Check and basically I have tried to pull in short nuggets of information such as infographics and statistical data that gives a more in-depth understanding of the subject you are writing about. You can do this as part of your research prior to writing the letter and keep the whole blog hidden online until you are ready to publish.
  • The third thing I would do is embed a RSS newsfeed on my MP’s activities in Parliament. Again you can do this by using  TheyWorkForYou

Finally, if you can go the extra length, join me in taking one more step: help one other person to do the same. They may be someone who has no confidence in writing a simple letter, may never have voted, has little understanding of the web and don’t feel that they are ever listened to anyway.  Mentor them and help them craft the letter, teach them the rudiments of blogging and support them through the process. In other words give them a voice and with it the tools and confidence to speak out. Then when you have done all that, ask them to share what they have learned with one other person in turn.

My blog is here: http://mymp4truro.wordpress.com/

 

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Comment by Gavin Barker on October 23, 2014 at 16:46

Ok fine - when you are ready, I will help you set up a blog. All I need is an email address and a password of your choosing. You can always change the password later.

Comment by joe taylor on October 22, 2014 at 20:37

Drafting the letter should pose no great problem. I get blog postings from people who use Wordpress but I've never used it myself

Comment by Gavin Barker on October 22, 2014 at 19:25

Hi Joe

Happy to do this. The biggest step is actually crafting the letter. If you want you can bounce a draft to me and I can act as a critical friend. Have you ever used Wordpress?

Comment by joe taylor on October 22, 2014 at 17:52

Thank you so much for this Gavin. I'm all for what seems to be a very good and well thought out plan of action. If you can find time to help me do what you advocate I'd be delighted and only too happy to pass on what I learn from you to someone else.

Cheers, Joe

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