Politicians can’t hide on Twitter

by India Knight

If it weren’t for social media – Twitter, specifically – I would never have known that Kerry McCarthy shares my fascination with Jacob Rees-Mogg (though it’s a thin line, isn’t it, between fascination and, um, the baser longings? Just saying). The world would still turn. The stars would still glint away in the sky. Labour politics would still feel a bit like we’d travelled back to some doleful time in the Eighties, with Neil Kinnock droning on tragically about the rightful order being restored and all being well. But the world – my world, at any rate – would be a drabber place. I love that McCarthy tweets from the chamber with barely-concealed trepidation whenever Rees-Mogg stands up to speak. The juxtaposition of the solemnity of the business at hand and of normal human behaviour delights me every time.

Prior to this, I was dimly aware of the existence of the member for Bristol East, but being a punter rather than a lobby hack or a politician, that was pretty much it. I’d never have read her blog, for instance, or any other MP’s, a) because nobody was holding a gun to my head and b) because I thought that reading politicians’ blogs – as opposed to political ones – would be as jolly as hunkering down for a riotous night in with some fabian society policy reports and a macramé project. (Obviously, I realise that this is some people’s idea of the most terrific fun, and I can only apologise for my own lamentable shallowness).

It’s a hackneyed old chestnut that politicians are “all the same”, but it’s a tenacious chestnut that not only endures but has recently grown, richly fertilised by ye olde expenses, to mega-chestnut, Chestnut of Doom proportions. Politicians of all parties are broadly perceived as, variously, pompous, monomaniacal dullards, disengaged freakazoids, Pooterish nobodies or hideously corrupt – sometimes, treat of treats, all four at once.

There’s the odd exception, but before social media the exceptions were born out of absurdly toddlerish reasons: leonine hair, like Michael Heseltine (“Daddy, that man looks like Simba”), a Nice Uncle manner, like Ken Clarke (“Daddy, can that man come to Christmas?”), palpable Baddie-hood, like – well, never mind (“Daddy, make the lady go away”). “Ordinary” voters seldom announced that they were interested in X or Y politician because they seemed actively likeable, or unusually articulate or witty, or because they seemed like an actual, functioning human being, as normal as the people he or she was elected to represent.

One of the wonders of social media if you’re in the public eye is that you can reclaim your image, or at least give it an airing and let people know what you’re like. You speak directly to your constituency – literally and metaphorically – without having your words distorted or without nifty insertions from interlocutors (“the minister said, shifting uneasily from one elephantine buttock to the other, the air around us dense with halitosis”). And of course if you’re not used to having your speech reported, here’s your chance to say stuff in public in the knowledge that people are listening. This is fantastic for politicians, and it must be enormously liberating – exhilarating, even: if I was one of them, I’d perma-blog and never be off Twitter. There are even rare occasions where you, as a reader or follower, realise that so-and-so is merely being authentically themselves, and sounds not only likeable and intelligent but like the kind of person you’d like to hang out with. Result!

However. I can’t remember who it was that said that there was nowhere to hide on Twitter – I’m excluding Facebook because the last time I looked, politicians’ home pages were better at providing useful information than at giving any real insight into their personalities. But whoever said it was right. It is true of writing in general that, sooner or later, everything comes out – the good, the bad and the downright hideous – and you are left wriggling, naked and exposed, even if you’ve tried your hardest to keep the less appealing stuff concealed.

Professional writers know this, and are sometimes able to delay the inevitable self-exposure, but politicians aren’t often professional writers. And so it’s all there from the off – transparently on display and open to the closest scrutiny. You start noticing who re-tweets compliments about themselves, and who brown-noses someone else three times a day. You note that someone seems to believe that their narcissism won’t show through if they chuck in some self-deprecation occasionally (“LOL!”). You observe that X is always trying to grab Y’s attention, but that Y never responds. You notice that the people you’re disposed to dislike are sometimes charming, and that those you’re rooting for may turn out to be robotically predictable, eye-bleedingly boring and not apparently possessed of a single thought that doesn’t parrot the party line.

It’s the same with blogs – for every fascinating story, every insight that makes you think “hooray, this person is normal” or “hooray, this person is properly clever” or “hooray, this person is capable of independent thought” there are three that make you think “this person has been told to blog and has nothing to say”, “this person is incredibly vain and self-regarding”, or, straightforwardly, “this person is loathsome”.

But the ones that don’t make you think that are like biting into a dusty-looking old biscuit and finding that it is unexpectedly ambrosial. There’s fantastic stuff out there: instant response to news, often pleasingly off-message, confessional writings that can be both affecting and thought-provoking, jokes, gossip, things that have nothing to do with the business at hand but that are never the less day-enhancing. Poetry, even.

It’s this stuff that draws people in and changes their perception of politicians as a species. I’m aware of the school of thought that believes that “liking” politicians is neither here nor there, that any manifestation of “personality” is reprehensible and that august affairs of state shouldn’t be subject to the vulgar access-all-areas “reality” of blogs or of sites like Twitter.

Yet the Guardian recently reported that 3.5 million people were missing from the electoral register – such a vast number that it could overturn general election results in nearly a quarter of constituencies. Voter apathy is such that only 59% bothered last June. Something’s got to happen, and it’s not going to happen by sitting around waiting for people to like you by the simple magic of osmosis. Giving voters evidence that you have a beating heart isn’t a bad place to start.

India Knight is a Sunday Times columnist, whose novel Comfort and Joy is published next week.

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