Public engagement

More people than ever are watching events unfold in Parliament, as Brexit has raised the profile of the UK’s parliamentary procedures – both domestically and internationally. Once UK–EU negotiations concluded with the agreement of a draft Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in November 2018, attention switched to Theresa May’s attempts to get the deal through Parliament.

The sudden significance of ‘arcane’ parliamentary procedure,[1] a series of knife-edge votes, and the increasing prominence of (and media attention paid to) the Speaker of the House of Commons [2] have all contributed to a sense of high drama. Viewing figures from – Parliament’s official website, which allows the public to watch parliamentary proceedings for free, live and on demand – suggest that the public has taken a strong interest in Parliament during the 2017–19 session, with average daily viewer numbers increasing 237% from 6,545 per day in 2017 to 15,552 per day in 2019.* viewing figures June 2017-July 2019

Parliamentary activity has also had a significant international reach, with 40% of the audience between January and March 2019 viewing from outside the UK, up from 18% for the same period in 2018.

As the figure above shows, the rise in viewer numbers was particularly clear in the first few months of 2019, with significant spikes in viewer numbers during January and March 2019 as a succession of heated Brexit debates, prime ministerial statements and close-run votes played out on the floor of the Commons.**

At times, the increase in viewing figures has coincided with a reduction in average viewing time, suggesting new audiences are tuning in to watch the outcome of key events – such as Commons votes.***

MPs have noted the increased interest in Parliament: the then Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, told MPs in April that “more people than ever are watching what is going on in Parliament… we might be facing a very challenging time in Parliament, but the silver lining is a huge increase in democratic participation.”[3]

Despite viewer figures falling away after April 2019, the change of prime minister in July 2019 led to another upturn. 24,807 viewers watched live coverage on on 25 July 2019, a figure made up almost entirely of people tuning in to watch Boris Johnson’s first statement to MPs – although this is still far short of the numbers seen at the height of the Brexit impasse in March 2019. Viewer numbers spiked again when Parliament returned from summer recess, with 215,000 viewers watching on 3 September 2019, the day MPs voted to take control of the Commons’ agenda to pass the Benn–Burt Bill to try and prevent no deal.

The BBC Parliament channel has also experienced an upturn in viewing figures, with an audience reach of 3.5 million per month between January and March 2019 (notably out-rating MTV in January).[4]

The House of Commons has dominated viewing

The figure above demonstrates how the Commons has dominated viewing figures, with the Commons chamber and select committees accounting for over 80% of total viewers in the 2017–19 session. During recent periods of Brexit high drama, the Commons chamber has driven the increase in viewing figures, accounting for over 75% of viewers in March and April 2019. The dominance during this session stands in contrast to the 2016–17 session, when viewing figures for the Commons chamber and select committees were much more evenly matched. The figure also shows how other key (non-Brexit) events – such as the Queens’ Speech and May’s statement on the Grenfell tragedy in June 2017 – have not attracted the same spikes in viewers as recent Brexit events.

Social media is driving viewing figures

Social media is also playing an important role in driving viewers to the website, with the number of webpage views originating from Facebook and Twitter this session peaking in January and March 2019 respectively. Other media outlets are also experiencing high online viewing figures for parliamentary activity. The Guardian’s YouTube coverage of the first round of indicative votes on different Brexit options[5] has been viewed over 350,000 times [6], while The Sun’s YouTube video of the votes attracted over 83,000 views.[7]

*2019 figures to 19 August 2019.

**The next full edition of Parliamentary Monitor will look more fully at the different ways the public engage with Parliament, alongside

***The average viewing during the session to March was 24 minutes and nine seconds. However, in March 2019 – at the height of the Brexit impasse in the Commons – viewers tuned in for an average of 17 minutes and 43 seconds.