I was annoyed. I had sent my local MP petition cards and online petitions about issues that I cared about and the only response was an email from a member of her staff telling me to stop contacting her. They said it was a waste of my time, their time and charity’s money. I was shocked, I didn’t expect that type of response. Our members of parliament (MPs) in the UK are supposed to listen to their constituents and represent their interests and concerns in Parliament. So shouldn’t her staff at least have pretended to care, even if they disagreed with my protests? I didn’t reply straight away; I didn’t know how to. I was too angry to think straight. For days I thought about it on and off. Then when I had calmed down slightly I tried to put myself in her shoes and exercise a bit of ‘intelligent empathy’. Why would her office staff believe that this was the best response to send me? What would they have thought of me when receiving my petitions?
Looking back, the petitions I had sent my MP were either petition postcards or email templates I was receiving from charities I supported. All I had to do was sign them and press send on my emails or post them to her.
When signing petition cards and e-petitions to my MP I would always add a little message on to the templates saying that I cared deeply about this issue and hoped that she would work hard to support the most vulnerable people in our society, but writing that didn’t take much time either. I guess her team of staff would have seen me as an ‘armchair activist’, just posting these quick transactional petitions to her and not doing anything else. I would have probably categorised myself as a slacktivist if I was an onlooker.
Maybe my MP and her team also doubted the level of my concern because I was sending her petitions on lots of issues from global warming to tax avoidance, human rights injustices to corporate greed. Did she see me as fickle? For me, these issues are all close to my heart and are linked to the growing inequality gap in society. After researching more about my MP and what her voting record was, I could see that she was new to her role, she had received lots of support from her political party nationally to help her win her seat, and she, so far, had always voted with the party line. Nearly all of the petitions I had signed were against what her political party was doing or believed in. It looked like we had very different ideologies and so maybe her team thought there was no point in talking with me since it looked like I would never vote for her or support her campaigns.
Also, as I looked at some of the petitions I had sent her, I realised the wording was very direct and impersonal, they never related to any local concerns and hardly ever included the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. Most petitions said something along the lines of: ‘Take action and get the government to do…’ with not much room for discussion or nuance. If I was her I could imagine feeling exhausted by all of our demands, especially as they were mostly faceless requests that were not very polite.
I don’t want to stop signing petitions, they can be useful to mobilise people around a campaign, gain public and media attention and pressure people in power to make a change. Each country works differently. In the UK, British citizens can submit and sign petitions for Parliament. If the petition meets the standards for acceptable petitions then over 10,000 signatures will receive an official response from the government. With over 100,000 signatures the issue will be considered for parliamentary debate. They can work. Maybe she didn’t see me as a slacktivist but proactively wanted to deter me from signing petitions that included ones protesting against her political party?
As a constituent I didn’t want to give up contacting my MP. I wanted to know more about how my MP was representing her constituents, including me. I wanted to see where I could make a positive difference within UK democracy, and working with or through our Members of Parliament still looked like one of many useful pathways to help break down structural injustices and replace them with laws that help create long-term social change. I decided that it would be useful to book an appointment to meet my MP face-to-face at one of her surgeries, state my commitment to these causes I had signed petitions for and find out the best way to help tackle them. We might agree on certain issues and she could tell me how I could support the campaign better. If we disagreed, I would ask how she came to that decision and change my mind if my argument was not as well informed. I didn’t want her to see me as someone not willing to engage in dialogue and discussion. I wanted to show her I genuinely cared about being a responsible, loving citizen and working with people, even if our views are different. But how could I show this?
I thought about the email I had received from her staff, about how I could show her I was a friendly and kind person, not an aggressive activist (activists can have a bad reputation, sadly). I wanted her to know that I didn’t just want to tell her what not to do, treat her like a robot, have my photo taken with her with a charity campaign prop for media attention and then leave. I also didn’t want to be a pushover, and just let her fill the whole session talking at me, which had happened previously with another MP when I lived in a different constituency. I wanted to find out more about her passions, purpose and personality. I wanted us to treat each other like fellow human beings, show her my commitment to social change, have a conversation and see where we might be able to work together as critical friends not aggressive enemies.
I decided to hand-stitch a message on a handkerchief. I had a packet I had been given as a gift but didn’t need them all (I already have two handkerchiefs I use). I was thinking about who uses them and how people use them: they’ve not just been used to blow noses. I knew they’d been used to show surrender in a battle, judges used them to place on their heads out of respect when they sentenced people to death, people offer them to someone who is crying. I liked that it was a soft, small and comforting object you could keep in your pocket. I thought it would be a fun metaphor for my politician to gently remind her not to ‘blow it’ but use her powerful position to make a positive difference in the world. I wanted to stitch an encouraging message for her that was also timeless and universal, so it wouldn’t become irrelevant during her time as an MP. I picked a lilac-coloured handkerchief that had a faint pattern of small flowers all over it, the calmest and sweetest hanky out of the bunch. After discussing the wording with my family we decided on the words:
Dear [her full name] MP,
As my MP I am asking you to please use your powerful position to challenge injustices, change structures keeping people poor, and fight for a more just and fair world. I know being an MP is a tough, big job but please DON’T BLOW IT, this is your chance to make a positive difference :)
Yours in hope
Sarah (Corbett), [postcode]