Politicians in Spain have taken a huge step in campaigner-voter relations: Borja Gutiérrez Iglesias, mayor of Brunete, a small town near Madrid, has given his phone number to the 10,000 strong population of the town.
The people of Brunete are now able to message him at any time of day via the popular messaging service WhatsApp. So far, so good, despite Iglesias having had to give up his social life to attend to questions from his constituency. With the Spanish population embracing this method, can the UK follow suit and bring politicians closer to voters?
Following Russell Brand’s recent call for young people to stop voting, the comedian succeeded, intentionally or not, in bolstering political debate all over the nation; everyone awoke from their political apathy to have their say on voting and elections. The Church of England expressed concerns over voter apathy in anticipation of May’s general election. The Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, commented: “We want to encourage people to engage more deeply with politics.”
It is a sensible sentiment, but currently the opportunities to engage are few and far between resulting in the existing dichotomy between voters and candidates.
The electorate needs to feel included in the political process. It is easy to feel as though individual votes hold little weight and that the people elected are too far removed from local and regional communities to ever understand daily issues. Having direct contact through WhatsApp would make campaigners feel like real people again.
Saving your local MP in your phonebook suggests a level of equality and normalcy which didn’t previously exist. Presently, if you want to take an issue to your local MP, your options are restricted to writing a letter or sending an email to a generic address, with little hope that you will be given the time of day.
Thanks to WhatsApp’s read-receipt function, your proposals and questions are much more likely to be given full attention. Politicians would have no choice but to listen to our views and WhatsApp would make them directly accountable for their answers. As a result, every message would hold great weight; for campaigners, a disappointing response could lead to lost votes – a great risk to run during an electoral campaign.
The model currently working for the people of Brunete and mayor Iglesias is aided by the small population of 10,000 in the town. However, in places with a greater population MPs would struggle to respond to the many messages they would receive on a daily basis. Politicians should aim to engage with the public on a more social level, but we don’t want them to become phone-absorbed zombies, overwhelmed with their WhatsApp queries.
This could dilute the level of real-life interaction we would have with them and possibly their ability to represent us in the House of Commons. Indeed, Prime minister’s Questions would look very different if every MP sat in the Commons was engrossed in their WhatsApp conversations in a bid to keep their public happy.
To decrease apathy amongst voters, politicians need to start putting themselves directly in constituents’ shoes. Having had the privilege of speaking with NHS-funded community carers, it is evident that they couldn’t feel more disillusioned with politics. Their working day consists of moving between homes to help patients with day-to-day tasks, for this they are paid minimum wage and are expected to fund their own travel costs from one patient to the next. They are effectively being penalised for wanting to help others.
If MPs were to spend time working a day or two with these carers, they would soon witness the real issues currently governing the lives of real people, who are often apathetic voters. In turn, one would hope that they would start to engage with people on levels beyond anything WhatsApp could provide, and turn such apathy into voting activity.