A year or two back, the hashtag #TweetlikeanMP trended – and it was fun. Inane tweets about meeting and greeting constituents, about party loyalty, about attending crucial meetings with business groups, lovely photo opportunities and so on. It was funny because it was, to a great extent, true – and because it revealed something about the way that our politics works. It also showed how badly MPs generally used Twitter – how they missed the opportunities that Twitter provides, opportunities to genuinely engage with their constituencies, to listen as well as to broadcast to the populace how wonderful they are. Opportunities to show that they’re human – and not just this remote, elite group looking down on the rest of us.
In the last couple of years, I’ve ‘met’ a fair few MPs who have been able to do it differently – to understand how Twitter can really work, and to engage with it. My own MP, Julian Huppert, is one of them – in practice, tweeting ‘to’ him is the best way to engage with him. I get answers – and real ones – most of the time, and I get the sense that he’s actually listening.He’s not alone – and it’s not been, so far, a party thing. I’ve engaged with MPs of all parties online, and of a wide range of views within each party. Michael Fabricant, Jamie Reed, Caroline Lucas amongst others – and members of the House of Lords from Ralph Lucas, Meral Hussein-Ece, Steve Bassam. I’ve even exchanged tweets with Nigel Farage. It felt as though twitter gave an opportunity to reach out to politicians, and to actually engage with them…
….which is one of the reasons I’m deeply saddened by what happened to Emily Thornberry last night. It’s not that I think her tweeted picture was anything but foolish, ill-judged, insensitive and revealing. It was all of those things… but the consequences are likely to be that MPs will retreat into their shells on social media. The way that she resigned just a few hours after ‘the’ tweet will have sent shivers down the spines of MPs across the spectrum – and party whips will be, well, cracking the whip, to keep their MPs in line for these next six months. We’ll see less humanity, less engagement, less humour – and much more ‘tweeting like an MP’ from everyone. An opportunity for politics to become more engaged will be lost – and at a time when the detachment of MPs from ordinary people is one of the main problems in politics, as Thornberry’s tweet sadly shows.
Of course there are other reasons to find yesterday’s turn of events saddening – from the level of abuse that Thornberry got on Twitter (regardless of what you think of the tweet, abuse like that is deeply unpleasant) to the fact that we’ve lost another woman from frontline politics, and another of those increasingly rare lawmakers who actually understands law has departed for the backbenches, at a time when parliament is trying to put through legal absurdities like Chris Grayling’s ‘Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill’ (SARAH).
Don’t misunderstand me – in the circumstances I’m not at all surprised that Thornberry resigned, and I do understand why Labour MPs like Chris Bryant were so sure that she was right to do so. I do, however, think that the consequences may be wider than we suspect – and one part is that we’ll see far more MPs just tweeting like MPs, not like human beings. That, regardless of the rest, is sad.