The Westminster Twitterverse

The political landscape, according to Twitter

Dr Cath Sleeman

Twitter allows MPs to follow each other and this creates a network of connections amongst those at Westminster. The visual below shows that network.

Each sphere represents an MP who served in the 2015-17 Parliament. The spheres' positions are determined by using an algorithm that pulls together MPs who are connected on Twitter and pushes apart those who are not. A larger sphere implies that the MP has more connections to others (a minimum size is imposed to ensure each sphere is visible). For two MPs to be connected they must both follow each other on Twitter; one-way connections are excluded. Party affiliations are those at the start of the 2015-2017 Parliament, and the data was collected on 1st June 2017.

The data was collected on the 1st of June 2017 by the GATE team in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield.

A note of caution

It is important to avoid over-interpreting results from Twitter data. A connection between two MPs may merely imply that the MPs are interested in seeing each other’s tweets. It does not necessarily imply that they share a political ideology. MPs who have opposing views might decide to follow each other, as might MPs who sit on the same committee. The number of reciprocal connections that an MP has will also depend on how frequently they use Twitter. Twitter is just one way in which MPs can communicate with each other and their constituents. And with that note of caution in mind...

Party ties

MPs for the three largest parties (the Conservatives, Labour & the SNP) are more likely to follow MPs who are in their own party than MPs in other parties. This tendency creates clusters of MPs for the three parties.

The minor parties sit between the three clusters and, perhaps surprisingly given the limitations of the data, their positions in the network do bear some resemblance to past ties between parties. For example, MPs from the DUP, UUP and UKIP are close to the Conservative cluster. In 2016 the DUP hosted a champagne reception at the Conservative party conference and earlier this year the Government granted the DUP a half-day debate in Westminster. The UUP previously had an electoral alliance with the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party, which ran from 2009 to 2012. And the sole UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell who became an Independent in March 2017, used to be a member of the Conservative party.

MPs for Plaid Cymru sit next to the SNP cluster. The two parties have co-operated in the past and formed a 'Celtic Alliance' in 2010. The only Green MP (Caroline Lucas) sits midway between the SNP and Labour clusters. MPs for the Liberal Democrats sit roughly midway between the Labour and Conservative clusters.

One interesting outlier is Kate Hoey, a Labour MP, whose red sphere sits closer to the Conservative cluster than the Labour cluster. Hoey has more reciprocal connections with MPs outside her party (23) than inside her party (15). Hoey also happens to have one of the highest rebellion rates among Labour MPs over the last Parliament.

Party presence on Twitter

Labour has a relatively stronger presence on Twitter than the Conservatives. A higher percentage of their MPs use the platform (92%) compared to the Conservatives (84%). Moreover, the median number of followers for a Labour MP is 13,800, compared to 7,700 for Conservatives. Of course Twitter is not the only social media platform, and others have recently suggested that Facebook will be the key to winning the election.

Variation among MPs

Conservative MP Greg Hands has the largest number of reciprocal connections with other MPs; he follows 220 MPs who also follow him. Hands is one of a group of MPs who each have more than 150 reciprocal connections. This group contains more Labour MPs than Conservatives. Some in the group mostly follow their own colleagues and sit towards the outside of the network. Others have many cross-party connections and sit closer to the centre of the network.

Some MPs have no reciprocal connections outside of their own party. Among Labour MPs, 14% have no outside connections, while for Conservatives this figure is 31% (among those on Twitter). This group includes the Prime Minister, Theresa May, who appears not to follow anyone on the platform. The group will also include MPs who have restricted access to their Twitter accounts. It is not possible to determine whether these MPs are connected to others.

Regional differences

MPs' engagement with Twitter varies by region. The East Midlands have the lowest percentage of MPs on Twitter (at 77%), while Scotland has the highest percentage at 98%.

MPs for Northern Ireland share the fewest connections with other MPs (median: 5.5 reciprocal connections per MP), followed by MPs in the East: East Midlands (22), South East England (30) and Eastern England (38). The most connected MPs are in London (median: 89 reciprocal connections) and the North: North East England (129) and North West England (90).

Despite the dense network of connections between MPs, there are still some regional gaps whereby MPs in one region have few connections with MPs from another. There are, for example, very few reciprocal connections between MPs in Scotland and MPs in a number of English regions, such as the East Midlands, South West England and Eastern England.

Looking back and forward

There have been two main changes in the Westminster Twitterverse since the 2010-2015 Parliament. First, the network has become denser, because MPs have made more connections. Second, the Scottish National Party have effectively switched places with the Liberal Democrats in the network, when the SNP became the third largest party.

The Westminster Twitterverse will inevitably change again after next week's general election. We already know some MPs who will not be returning, because they have either decided not to stand or left during the last Parliament. Most of the Conservative MPs who are not returning lie near the outside of the network (on the right-hand side of the Conservative cluster). These MPs include George Osborne, Eric Pickles, David Cameron, Gerald Howarth, Karen Lumley and David Mackintosh - they each have very few cross-party connections. By contrast, a number of the departing Labour MPs have a large number of cross-party connections. These MPs include Michael Dugher, Tom Blenkinsop, Tristram Hunt and Iain Wright. They all sit close to the centre of the network on the right-hand side of the Labour cluster.