Getting your voice heard: a beginner’s guide to making a difference in the UK
PART 1: THE BASICS
You might have taken part in the marches last Saturday. Or you might have been amongst the people who objected to them. Either way, the chances are that you’ve been thinking and talking about politics a lot more than usual over the last few days.
The Women’s March was the biggest protest event to hit the streets of London in recent years. Marches were also held in other cities up and down the UK, part of a worldwide expression of resistance against the new political landscape in the US and beyond.
Many of those marching, had not, by their own admission, previously thought of themselves as political people.
Equally, those rushing to the comments sections of newspapers, across social media and even on primetime TV to denigrate the marchers may not have thought that they were engaging in a particularly political act.
But one way or another, there are now many thousands of people across the UK with very strong feelings, who may be wondering what to do next to have their voice heard. Perhaps you are one of them. If so, read on: this post is for you.
Tools for everyone
Here at mySociety, we are politically non-partisan. The tools that we provide are designed to help citizens to gain easy access to democracy. No matter what your political beliefs, whether you’re left wing, right wing or no wing at all, you can use our websites to:
- See how your MP voted, and everything they have said in Parliamentary debates (with TheyWorkForYou)
- Receive an email every time your MP speaks, or every time a word or phrase of interest is mentioned in Parliament (via the TheyWorkForYou email alerts)
And of course, we’re not the only ones who make such tools. In this series of blog posts we’ll also be looking at how to:
- Make sure that your opinions are based on truth, with sites such as Full Fact and Snopes
- Use Google Alerts so you know exactly what your representatives get up to outside Parliament
- Don’t miss your chance to make a difference with your vote, by finding out when the next elections are, locally or nationally.
How to write to your MP
Let’s start with this fundamental act. For many of us, it’s been a long while since anything moved us strongly enough that we felt impelled to let our MPs know how we feel; perhaps you have never done so before.
In fact, so many people never write to their MP that, if a whole new swathe of people began to take up the habit, the tone of our representatives’ postbags would presumably change dramatically. Just as, if everyone who didn’t vote decided to go to the ballot box after all, our governments would look very different.
Writing (or rather, these days, emailing) your MP is a very easy way to let them get a direct window into exactly how their constituents are feeling — and we’ve made it even easier.
Our website WriteToThem.com allows anyone in the UK to contact their representatives. You don’t need to know who they are; so long as you know your own postcode, we’ll show you a list of everyone who represents you, from local council level upwards, like this:
Here’s how to get the best results from WriteToThem:
Choose the right representative
Once you’ve input your postcode, you’ll see the list of politicians who represent you. Note that each level of government deals with different areas — for example, it’s no good writing to your local councillors about Brexit!
As you can see in the image above, we’ve summarised the duties of each rep right next to the list, to make it a bit easier to work out where your message will have the most impact. For the purposes of this guide, though, we’re assuming that you are concerned with issues at a national level, so we’ll mainly be talking about contacting your MP.
Only write to the representatives for your own area
WriteToThem is set up deliberately to make it difficult to contact any MP (or indeed councillors, etc) other than those which represent your constituency.
This is because of a strict parliamentary rule which says that representatives can only deal with mail from their own constituents. Send an email to an MP other than your own, and there’s a high chance that it will be returned with a message to say that it can’t be dealt with.
If you have a message for a minister, ie an MP who is the head of a specific department, like the Department of Education, or the Department of Work and Pensions, the correct protocol is to ask your own MP to pass the message on — and they must do so, even if they disagree with your point. You may even request that they ask a question in Parliament for you.
If you wish to write to the Prime Minister, the advice is the same — to do so through your own MP. In most cases, there will be someone more suitable for your message a bit lower down the tree, and they will be more likely to have the time to respond, too!
On the other hand, there will be times when a direct message to the PM is permissible, and Number 10 have provided an online contact form for those occasions. As a timely example, today Theresa May visits Donald Trump. Many UK citizens have written to her to share their hopes and fears about this meeting.
It’s not a constituency matter, and many of the messages are likely to deal with business external to the UK Parliament; also, the short notice means that going through one’s own MP may not be practical. Under those circumstances, we think it’s reasonable to mail the PM directly.
Make a single, actionable request
For best results, stick to one point per message, and make it very clear what you would like your representative to do. Vote a certain way? Attend a certain meeting? Don’t make them guess.
Use your own words
We know it’s much easier to copy and paste a message from a campaign website, but a message that you write yourself will have infinitely more impact.
If you send an MP a copy and paste message, you can’t blame them if they send a canned response back, or attach less importance to your message. In fact, WriteToThem blocks identikit messages from being sent in the first place.
Choose your time
In a subsequent post, we’ll show how to use TheyWorkForYou’s alerts so that you make contact with your representative just before an important vote or debate.
What should I write?
If you are hoping to get things changed, you could write along one of these lines:
- How you would like your MP to vote in an upcoming debate.
- Your personal experience and how it relates to a current issue: for example, you may be someone affected by recent cuts to welfare benefits, or you might work with people who are suffering because of government policy. A human story which shows the real-life effects of what may have seemed like quite an abstract topic will always have impact.
- Facts and figures which may help your MP see things in a new light.
- An invitation to attend a meeting, your workplace, a school or an event so that they can learn more about a specific topic.
- A question to find out more about how they feel on a certain issue.
- Positive support for the way they are already speaking and voting — we’ll talk in a later post about why this may be more effective than it seems at first.
How often should I write?
You may feel that there is a lot to communicate at the moment, and that, bearing in mind our advice to keep to a single topic per message, you’d need to write a message a day to your MP to get it all across.
This is not a good idea. Your MP has to deal with mail from all their constituents in a fair manner, so eventually they are likely to deprioritise messages from anyone who is contacting them on a very frequent basis.
We would say that one a month is probably as frequent as you should go, without running the risk of being labeled a nuisance.
Ready to get started?
That’s quite a lot to get going with already: perhaps you’re ready to mail your MP right now — or share the link to WriteToThem with others who might like to do so.
In our next post, on Monday, we’ll look at what to do if things don’t go as smoothly as you might hope. Stay tuned!