“Letters to politicians” Do they make much difference?

If you have hopes for change that go far beyond the borders of your riding, you may question the usefulness – or the point at all – of writing to your local MP.

With issues that tend to be global in focus, such as international human rights, World Bank reform, and corporate social responsibility, it is important to know how citizens can engage. I asked five experienced Canadians with varied perspectives for advice on how much change you can affect with a letter:

  • Francis Scarpaleggia, Liberal MP
  • Mark Eyking, Liberal MP, Party Critic for CIDA
  • Hélène Laverdière, NDP MP, Opposition Critic for International Cooperation, the Americas and Consular Affairs
  • Warren Allmand, former Liberal MP
  • Alain Roy, Director of Campaigns and Activism for Amnesty International Canada
Introduce yourself and say why you care

Scepticism about the significance of your letter is understandable. But MPs do heed letters from their constituents, at least as much as they do campaign letters or petitions with many signatures. Don’t hesitate to make your letter personal and introduce yourself. Write as an individual.

“I wouldn’t discount the impact of an individual letter,” Alain Roy from Amnesty International said. “If people make it personal, and speak directly from their own experience, if they say that they are a teacher or a nurse or a student and they speak as that and care about an issue, that is acknowledged, and that can make a difference.”

A strong personal narrative can make a letter more memorable, and can also help your MP understand your perspective on the issue you’re writing about. Your MP needs to know why your issue is important to you, and why it should also be important to him or her.

“Say why I should care about the issue – right from the beginning, in the first paragraph,” Helene Laverdière said.

Establish a relationship

More than one letter may be needed to really engage with an MP.

“We encourage Amnesty International members to cultivate some sort of relationship with the MP, so that a letter is not just a one-off but part of an on-going conversation” Roy said. “Often it’s not one letter that changes something, but engagement over time.”

Think about your MP as an individual with personal interests as well. Knowing what those interests are can help you make your letter more effective, because you know how to frame it to get his or her attention.

“We suggest that people find out about their MPs’ relevance and interests,” Roy said. “The more you know about your MP the better you can pitch your story, and the more likely they are to take action.” For example, if you want to write about a global or foreign policy concern, check if your MP has a personal interest in a foreign country, or worked or travelled internationally.

What happens to your letter?

It is up to the MP what he or she chooses to do with your letter, once they receive it, but you can expect it to be read and replied to.

“In my offices, we answer everything that is from a constituent,” Francis Scarpaleggia said. “If it’s a timely issue, we might even use the information in the letter to inform a speech we want to give on the topic.”

An informative letter with research in it or attached with it is more likely to be influential. MPs sometimes discuss letters they receive from constituents with their colleagues.

It can take time for discussion to turn into concrete policy decisions, so it’s a good idea to be patient. “You may not see a change in policy in the following weeks,” Roy said. “But it might be enough for an MP to raise a question in the weekly caucus meetings.”

Caucus meetings are a main forum in which MPs discuss their constituents’ concerns. The meetings are a private place in which issues – including issues with party policy – are raised. “We have caucus meetings every week and they’re very private,” Mark Eyking said. “You’d be surprised, but an MP will say ‘OK, I’ve been getting these concerns so we have a problem with this bill.'”

Laverdière said that not only does writing to your MP have an impact, it is essential for them to know what their constituents’ concerns are. “I often have colleagues who come to me and say ‘I’ve got somebody from my riding who wrote to me about this subject, what is it? What do you think? Are we working on this?'”

Why is it essential to write?

Warren Allmand warned me that the current government is more talk and less action, so I asked if there was a point to writing to your MP in the current circumstances. All agreed there was.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a big change going on in the way we are behaving on the international stage,” Eyking said. “We’re backing off from the UN, and there are big changes in the way we are behaving in the Middle East where we didn’t used to take sides.”

In spite of this, citizens should still try and put pressure on MPs to influence policy, he says. “An individual can make an impact on a decision at the top. Sometimes you don’t know how it’s happening but it does happen.”

It’s especially important to write to MPs when they are in opposition, because you’re providing them with much needed feedback and information. “The government has thousands of public servants working for them and some are experts, with a lot of experience and knowledge of an issue,” Scarpaleggia said. “Opposition MPs don’t have those resources; we have very small staff, so we rely on NGOs and citizen groups to provide us with points of view and information.”

For Laverdière, letters are a part of sending a message to the government. “It’s important to speak and to speak out loudly, especially right now given the fact that we have a government that doesn’t seem to want to listen to that many people. Letters are part of the dialogue, part of the movement, and part of a more general message that citizens can send to MPs in general – that people care, and that people are engaged.”

However, while MPs may be keen to hear from their constituents, there is still the question of whether individual MPs themselves have much impact. They may be bound to follow party policy.

“There is debate about the actual role or impact that individual MPs can have in systems like ours where there is a party discipline,” Roy said. “But MPs still have a number of things that they can do that can help, and that’s why many Amnesty International campaigns include a part about outreaching to MPs to help us uphold human rights or deal with specific issues.”

In the end, does letter writing work?

There are a few things to keep in mind when judging the success of a letter to an MP. If you expect your letter to bring about instant global change, you may be disappointed. But as representatives of their constituents, an integral part of the MPs’ job is to engage with the letters and feedback they receive.

“We had the case of Bill C300 a couple of years ago on corporate accountability where letter writing and outreach to MPs almost got us a positive vote,” Roy said. “It came very close on an issue where many people thought there was no chance.”

If you want to engage with the government, writing to your MP is one of the most direct ways you can do it.

Even so, Laverdière says, it may not be enough. “We need people to be involved. Being an MP is being in a dialogue with citizens. There are, unfortunately, too few means for citizens to keep talking to their MPs and elected officials. Writing is one of them, and I don’t think people should give up on that opportunity.”

“I’ll tell you one thing that I know in this business,” Eyking said of his experience as an MP. “If you have some correspondence from an individual in your riding, MPs do take note and it does have an influence on their decision making process.”

Suzanna Khoshabi