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Roundtable discussion in Stockport: Summary

On 11 August, the Speaker's Digital Democracy Commission headed to Stockport and held a discussion at the Starting Point Community Learning Partnership

Summary of discussions

How do you currently engage with Parliament and politicians?

A few members of the group said that they contacted their MP quite a lot to tell him their views, and one attendee had responded to some consultations. The main method of engaging with Parliament was by voting.

On politicians, some participants thought that they lied and were untrustworthy, whereas others commented that they couldn’t all be bad. Some felt that politicians tended to concentrate on issues and people in the south-east and that they didn’t listen to people north of Watford. There was a feeling that politicians did not try to communicate with the local electorate, and did not knock on the door at election time. Some participants said they had no idea what politicians did. One participant suggested that people had a responsibility to find out more about politicians themselves. Others said they had tried to do this but had received a fairly poor response from the main parties.

A few participants were interested in the work of Select Committees but thought that awareness among members of the public about what they did and when they sat was probably quite low.

One person said that they had done surveys on political issues on Facebook but that the wrong questions were being asked. More generally, there was not enough focus on issues that really mattered to people, such as local hospitals.

There was fairly wide agreement among the House of Lords was relatively mysterious, with people not knowing how people were chosen as peers or how the Lords related to them. Even people who were comfortable about contacting their MP did not know in what circumstances it would be appropriate to contact a peer.

One member of the group aired their views about political issues on Facebook because they felt that no one in the political world would listen to them.

Do you vote?

Some of the group said that they voted and one had stood for election. A few people said they did not vote – reasons included:

  • lack of time
  • not knowing how to vote or where to go
  • not knowing who to vote for
  • not knowing enough about the political system and what politicians did
  •  having no faith in politicians and finding them untrustworthy
  • feeling that voting and politics had no relevance to them
  • not wanting to queue at the polling station

The younger group members in particular felt they had insufficient information about politics and politicians to feel confident about voting. If their parents didn’t tell them about voting, they lacked guidance to help them decide who to vote for. They had not found citizenship lessons very useful in this regard. One younger person said that they didn’t know anyone their age who had a clue what politicians talked about or did, and that this made it hard for them to vote. Another said that they didn’t have time to read about politics and they would like an app to help them differentiate between parties and decide who to vote for.

One participant had voted for the same party for 35 years because that was who their parents had voted for, but they had since become disillusioned and stopped voting. They felt that politicians didn’t live in the real world and that their vote didn’t count. However, they were still interested in political issues: “Even if I don’t vote, I’m still interested in what’s going on and why.”

Some members of the group felt strongly that when large numbers of people didn’t vote, it gave greater power to those who did. Compulsory voting was discussed and it was suggested that there would have to be a “none of the above” option if voting was compulsory.

How do people want to communicate with politicians?

The group agreed that face-to-face contact was important: “There’s a reason why the local MP stands outside the chippy when there’s an election on – that’s where they can meet local people.”

Some attendees wanted to communicate with their MP via Twitter, but thought it was important that MPs did their own tweeting. Others pointed out that not everyone used Twitter. One attendee commented that using Twitter put more pressure on MPs to respond and act on certain issues, because they would look bad if they did not.

There was also some agreement that if more Select Committees had Twitter accounts, it might be easier for people outside London to be involved in what they did. When the group was asked if they would mind getting adverts on Facebook about what Select Committees were doing, people agreed that this was an appropriate place to raise the kind of issues that Select Committees looked at. One attendee commented that it would be more relevant than some of the ads they currently got; others noted that certain political parties, such as the BNP, used Facebook quite effectively.

Some attendees said they would take part in a Skype discussion with an MP at a community centre if it was about an issue that concerned them.

What would help people to be more informed about Parliament and politics?

Suggestions included:

  •   highlight how issues are relevant to people – this can turn “boring politics” into interesting issues
  • introduce a parliamentary certification mark to give people confidence that a source of information about Parliament or political parties is trustworthy
  • use TV more to raise awareness about Parliament
  • use hashtags to increase engagement with particular issues
  •  have a more accessible version of Question Time
  •  make the language used in Parliament easier to understand
  • use YouTube or a red button alongside Parliament TV to explain what is going on
  • have a parliamentary web page to collect people’s views on specific issues in different weeks. This could be enhanced by giving background information about the issues being debated

Online voting

The group had mixed views on online voting. They discussed…

  • whether online voting would increase turnout. The point was made that it would not reduce turnout. One participant said that they did not vote at the moment but would if they could use their phone.
  • whether fraud would be an issue. One participant pointed out that if the banks had security mechanisms to enable people to bank online, these could be used to enable online voting.
  • whether online voting would help people who can’t get out easily, such as people in care. It was suggested that the new assisted digital service might enable such people to vote online from home, but there would have to be safeguards against abuse.

Conclusions and recommendations

  • People might not see politics as being interesting but they do tend to be interested in political issues such as welfare and education.
  • There is a lack of trust in politicians, and this affects people’s willingness to vote or get involved in political issues. There is also a feeling that some politicians do not try to engage with their constituents even at election time.
  • If people felt better informed about political issues, the democratic process and what politicians do, they might feel more confident about voting and feel more engaged in the political process.
  • Increasing education about political matters and parliamentary processes is a two-way process. Schools could do more, as could politicians.
  • More information about parties and candidates should be available in the run-up to elections. Apps to help people decide who to vote for would be useful.
  • Over-complicated language and presentation is a barrier to understanding. “Party manifestos are like War and Peace!” Material about what parties stand for should be accessible and in plain English.
  • People would like to hear more from their MP between elections about what they have been doing.
  • There should be more information available about what Select Committees are doing.
  • Video, Twitter and Facebook should be used more by politicians and Parliament, but it was also important to remember that not everyone used Twitter or Facebook. For some people, YouTube posts would be the best way for politicians to communicate with them.
  • Online voting has the potential to make voting easier and more accessible, but concerns about security and fraud would have to be addressed.

Facilitator: Helen Milner

Attendees: Jonathan Robinson, Nicola Wallace Dean, Anne Wallace, Laura Dennis, James Wilson, Sue McMurdo, Jim McMurdo, Laura Ward, Sue Howard, Cath Head, Jamie Toland, Jack Maddock, Anne Holland, David Mellor, Robert Wallace

Image: iStock