Social networking, MPs and you: Redrawing the lines of communication in Rochdale

By Joe Dalton

During the Gettysburg Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said democracy should be “the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

But in modern-day Britain, it feels as though our democracy is falling short of President Lincoln’s noble ideals.

The scandal over MPs fiddling expenses combined with severe coalition government cuts has arguably left people in Britain feeling more distanced from politicians than ever.

Voter turnouts at elections are low and many young people don’t even know who their MPs are.

But there are simple steps MPs can take to involve more ordinary people in government and engage more young people with politics.

With the communication technology available in our modern society, MPs should be increasingly accessible to constituents and government should be more transparent than ever.

At the heart of an MP’s role is their duty to constituents and if MP’s are to fulfil this duty successfully then communication is key.

I recently attended the surgery of Jim Dobbin, Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, to find out how effectively it served its purpose.

Upon arriving at Heywood Civic Centre, I was greeted warmly by Mr Dobbin and welcomed inside.

I was informed I‘d just missed a couple of constituents but couldn’t help noticing the place was hardly a hive of activity.

“I hold about five of these each month,” Mr Dobbin explained.

“On average about 6-12 constituents will attend but sometimes it can be very quiet.”

“I use three different venues in the constituency to try and accommodate everyone as this constituency encompasses some wealthy and some very poor areas.”

Mr Dobbin was very forthcoming in explaining the work he does to keep in touch with his constituents.

He said he returns to Rochdale for at least three days every week and will often hold assemblies in local schools to engage with young constituents and hear their issues.

But when asked whether he uses modern media to make himself more accessible to the internet generation he had little to say.

“I had someone start a website for me during the election campaign so I could publicise my views on specific issues,” he said.

“But I stopped it afterwards. I don’t need to up my profile – I’ve been serving here for over 14 years so everyone knows who I am.”

Elizabeth Stafford, from Heywood, was one of the few constituents who came to see Mr Dobbin while I was there.

She said: “It’s important for me to come and see Jim face to face because I like to see his initial reaction to the issue I’ve raised.

“But I have an 18-year-old son who’d probably feel more comfortable approaching Jim online or on facebook for example.”

Mr Dobbin may be right in saying many of his constituents are familiar with him, and there is no doubt the conventional MP’s surgery is still a cornerstone of our democracy.

But I can’t help feeling he’s missing a trick by refusing to embrace modern methods of communication alongside them.

When MPs launch themselves into cyberspace, they shouldn’t just be concerned about raising their profile.

They can use new tools such as blogs to connect with constituents over specific issues and host websites so everything people want to know about their MP’s work is available in one place.

Also, it can help to put them on the radar of young people.

Many of the younger generation may be disinterested but if the local MP appears on Twitter for example, they will at least enter their consciousness, and that has to be a positive step.

Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, runs his own website where constituents can view his video diaries on local issues, read his letters from Westminster, view his expenses and sign up to follow him on twitter and facebook.

Mr Danczuk said: “My constituents like that I’m trying to engage with them using new media.

“I know people appreciate that I’ve tried to keep these things going, whereas some election candidates get very enthusiastic about social media only to abandon it as soon as their result is announced.”

Mr Danczuk said recent events in the Middle East serve to demonstrate the huge impact social media is having upon political debate worldwide but that it’s important not to overlook its potential role in local politics. 

“Some of my constituents have actually used twitter to raise local issues that I’ve taken up as constituency casework,” he said.

“I certainly think social media can have a practical use.”

Luke Rigg, 17, from Rochdale, says many of his peers have little interest in politics but if MPs do make themselves readily accessible online, it could encourage more participation.

“I think if an MP sets up a twitter or facebook account, they’re bound to come into contact directly or indirectly with the younger generation in their constituencies,” said Luke.

“Simon has both and it enables people like me to easily see the sorts of things he’s campaigning for.

“I believe, particularly for younger people, technology makes it more comfortable to contact your representative.”

Luke also says government departments could improve transparency and be more easily held to account if they made information regarding spending and expenses more readily accessible. is a website built entirely by volunteers which hopes to achieve this.

Myf Nixon is marketing and communications manager for mySociety – the organisation that maintains the site.

She said: “As our websites show, there are incredible and innovative ways of using online technologies that we are only just beginning to explore – and since a large part of any MP’s job has to be communication, they need to embrace that, and become excited by it.”

It is clear there are new possibilities developing all the time which could help MPs connect with their constituents.

We will never know what President Lincoln would have made of the internet and social media sites, but we can only hope that today’s politicians will have the foresight to make the most of them sooner rather than later.

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