Letters by constituents to their Members of Parliament (MPs) have existed for a long time but since the second half of the last century members of the UK parliament have received an unprecedented amount of communication from their constituents (Norton 1994). Although this form of political participation needs somewhat more commitment than voting or signing a petition (Milbrath 1965:18) this particular activity enjoys great popularity with around 10-20% of citizens in Western European countries saying they have contacted a politician, government or local government official (according to the European Social Survey 2007).
However, what political research since the 1950s rather unanimously shows is that those who do take this opportunity for participation have a very particular profile (Verba, Schlozman et al. 1995; Deth 2006). They tend to be white, older males with high education and high income that are often already politically active (di Gennaro and Dutton 2006 and own analysis of Oxford Internet Survey 2007). The observed patterns are even more pronounced than the already biased profile of the politically active population in general. Drawing on Dahl’s conception of democracy (Dahl 1989) this paper argues that biased participation violates political equality and empirically tests to what degree the Internet could be a tool to make participation in this activity more representative of the wider population.
To this end the paper presents the results of a large-scale survey of the users of the website WriteToThem.com, a website by the UK charity mySociety that makes finding and writing to your MP very easy and that is very successful, being used by tens of thousands of citizens every year. The paper reports data from a survey of more than 5,000 users over a one-year period, giving detailed information about the users' sociodemography and their political engagement. The information obtained is compared to the latest data from the Oxford Internet Survey which allows to compare the findings to traditional participation patterns.
The results show that in terms of their demographic characteristics users of this site exhibit even more pronounced deviations from the population. In many respects these can be explained by issues concerning the digital divide. At the same time the findings show a clear engagement effect with many users having been politically inactive before their use of this site, only that mobilization occurs mainly in those groups of the population that are traditionally more likely to participate. However, in terms of engaging marginalized groups there are some encouraging findings at the margins where the technology can succeed to bring in new voices.
The particular form of political participation under consideration here is highly suitable for assessing the impact of the internet on politics for a number of reasons: First, it focuses on a traditional and established form of participation which allows to draw on established research. Second, the online equivalent of the letter to the MP does employ comparatively simple email technology which has allowed for a widespread adoption, leading to a third reason which is that large number of UK citizens that use this opportunity to get in touch with their representatives. Last but not least a number of scholars in the field have identified the MP-constituency relationship as one of the key areas in which ICTs could (and should) play a positive role (Ward and Lusoli 2005:60; Coleman 2007).