How British lawmakers really use WhatsApp

  15 February 2018    Read: 1894
How British lawmakers really use WhatsApp
Plotting in U.K. politics has shifted from deep in the heart of the Palace of Westminster to secret groups on WhatsApp. Smoke-filled rooms for the 21st century -- or that’s how it’s often portrayed.

The reality, lawmakers say, is quite different. Often devoid of policy or even political scuttlebutt, WhatsApp chatrooms are more likely to be filled with pictures of cats or dinners in not-so exotic locations, or comments on last night’s TV, than serious intrigue.

Use of Facebook Inc.’s app for encrypted, easy to set up chatrooms is rife in Parliament. There’s a group for female Labour Party lawmakers, one for Conservative Party backbenchers (or lawmakers not in government), one for self-identified Labour moderates, one for Tories representing seats in the north of England, and different groups for each new intake. So WhatsApp has transformed British politics -- just not in the way that’s often imagined.

“Anyone joining in the hope of House of Cards-style plotting will be very disappointed,” Tory lawmaker James Cleverly, who was elected in 2015 and again last year, said in -- how else? -- a WhatsApp message. “The bulk of WhatsApp traffic is mundane stuff, like ‘Can you cover for me in a committee?’ or sharing photos of the Parliamentary pancake race/dog of the year.”

Some chatrooms do have “genuine political debate” or contain urgent messages to reach committee quorums, according to Labour lawmaker Jess Phillips, who was also elected for the first time in 2015.

Others clearly don’t.

“The best one by far is the one specifically set up to discuss Love Islandwhere we used slates and block votes for our favorite candidates,” Phillips said via -- again -- WhatsApp, referring to ITV’s reality TV show.

Lion and Unicorn

Even the chatroom for the secretive European Research Group, which has gained notoriety as a power base for Conservative lawmakers -- many of whom want a so-called hard Brexit from the European Union -- is less interesting than it first appears, one of the more than 90 people in the WhatsApp group said on condition of anonymity.

That’s despite a logo depicting HMS Victory, the Royal Navy flagship that helped defeat Napoleon’s fleet in 1805, under a lion, a unicorn and the British crown.

No plotting takes place in the ERG/DexEU/DIT Support Group chatroom -- to give it its full title -- the lawmaker said. Rather, it’s a forum to discuss any Brexit business, and members include several ministers and supporters of a closer relationship with the EU.

Any sensitive discussions would instead be discussed in ERG Chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg’s office, the lawmaker said.

Still, it’s an example of how groups can alarm those not included. Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s allies gathered in a chatroom called Phoenix which, according to the Mail on Sunday, worried Prime Minister Theresa May’s staff because they thought it represented a phoenix rising from the ashes and Gove’s plans to topple her. It turned out to be the name of the pub they used to meet in.

WhatsApp’s use isn’t universal. Many lawmakers just don’t like it, while some find it difficult to navigate. One Labour Party candidate likened a colleague’s effort to a pensioner trying to program a video recorder.

And as every WhatsApp user knows, there are potential pitfalls.

“WhatsApp is a terrible thing,” Labour lawmaker Lucy Powell said after accidentally criticizing colleagues in a wider group than she had intended. “I have learnt a terrible lesson. I’m so sorry.”


The Bloomberg

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