Should politicians just get off Twitter?

By Mic Wright on July 20th, 2012

Politicians tweeting is like dogs standing on their hind legs: impressive, but it usually ends in catastrophe. A recent bun fight between two esteemed members of our political class was between housing minister Grant Shapps and hashtag-obsessed former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Ever seen Jabba The Hutt in a fist-fight with a man so boring he can wilt vegetables? Nope? Well step right this way.

Earlier this week, Prescott realised something that anyone with eyes and even the most basic grasp of social media has known for ages: individuals with implausibly large follower numbers compared to their real-world reputations are often gaming the system. He “revealed” that he believes Shapps is using a some sort of follower service to automatically follow and unfollow other users to keep his follower base inflated. He also created #shappsfollowedme, adding it to his vast library of memes alongside such classics as #torybiscuits.

This is like one of those boxing matches where you hope both fighters lose. It’s obvious that, despite his attempts to defend himself, Shapps is gaming Twitter. The scheme is more transparent than Madonna’s blouses in the late 80s. On the other hand, the rise of John Prescott as a Twitter-enabled man of the people is equally nauseating. The croquet-playing, secretary-schtupping pug of Parliament has benefited from a PR refresh since he started bashing out bad puns and point-scoring on Twitter.

But at least Prescott has the excuse of no longer being in office. The current vogue among MPs for tweeting constantly, even during sessions, hearings and committee meetings, is awful. Most of these tedious narcissists follow very few users beyond their colleagues and political hacks. They use the site as just another place to parrot the party line: “The Prime Minister was masterful…” (Actually, that one sounds like a Westminster 50 Shades of Grey spin-off.)

The most egregious political tweeters – vibrating mass of ego and self-regard Tom Watson and blonde bombshell instaquote machine Louise Mensch – used the site to further reduce the authority of Parliament during the Culture, Media & Sport Committee hearings on the phone hacking scandal. Mensch’s desire for profile was so over-reaching that she has now partially decamped to Menshn, her own-brand babbling platform. That, I believe, may come to be seen as a blessing.

There are exceptions to the rule. One is Conor Burns, Conservative Member of Parliament for Bournemouth West and member of the Kernel 50, who, with around 2,500 followers, uses Twitter like a more normal human being. He responds to people who speak to him and interacts with others without the need to descend into hashtags and horseplay. So it is possible for MPs to make use of Twitter effectively, but good Lord, it is painfully rare.

Is it really too much to ask that MPs stop fixing their Twitter follower numbers and focus more on fixing the country? Of course they should use all communication methods available to them but scrapping on social media and ego-tweeting about their successes looks like fiddling while Rome riots.

Hashtag that one, Mr Prescott.