More than 70 per cent of MPs use Twitter. Photo: Getty
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To watch the political elite debate, head to Twitter, not Westminster

Twitter, once the preserve of teens and techies, is now the medium of choice for the political establishment too. 

Twitter has become the latest arena of political debate and campaigning in the UK, breaking down barriers between politicians and voters. It also affords MPs a channel of communication over the head of spin doctors and the press.

Uptake by MPs was sluggish at first. Many politicians were initially fretful about the security of social media accounts and cognisant of the inherent risks of communicating in real-time online. Such has been the inexorable rise of Twitter, however, that MPs are now all but expected to be on it: more than 70 per cent of Britain’s 650 MPs have signed up (464 according to the Telegraph’s curated list).

While a few MPs delegate their bot-like accounts to their researchers to retweet bland praise or parrot propaganda tweeted by party HQ, many MPs take the helm themselves, and some take it very seriously indeed.

MP and President of the Lib Dems Tim Farron managed an astonishing 17,421 tweets last year (50 tweets a day, or one every twenty minutes on average), making him the most prolific British politician on the site.

In total UK MPs sent almost a million tweets last year, up 28 per cent on the previous year and an increase of more than 230 per cent from 2011. Ben Carson, head of product at social media monitoring service Yatterbox, commented in December: The level of engagement by politicians on social media has exploded in the last two years… It is now beyond doubt that social media is a critical part of how an MP communicates with the outside world.

Admittedly many MPs (especially those with hopes of promotion) take their lead from party headquarter Twitter feeds, and are vigilant about staying “on message” about party policies, mixing it up with the odd constituency selfie tweet to prove their commitment to their local voters.

But other politicians have exploited the ability to eschew the iron grip of their central party on messaging, by creating, and presiding over, this unique channel of communication.

Twitter has certainly proven an effective activism tool for smaller campaigns, useful not only for promoting a cause, but also publicising an MP's contribution to furthering it. Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy, the party’s most prolific tweeter, has tweeted tirelessly in support of her crusade against payday lenders. With almost 49,000 followers, her reach has sent the issue soaring up the agenda and allowed Creasy to become the face of the campaign against it.

In addition to its political function, it has boosted the personal image of many MPs, who have benefited from revealing shades of personality through their 140-character messages. Tweeting in an informal, speech-like way about traffic jams, weekend plans and hobbies reinforces their human side – no trivial thing in an era of low trust in politicians.

Some have even developed comic online personae. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Tory MP for Daventry, sends out a steady stream of one-liners into the ether. Recent gems include: “Do German vegetarians drive Volksvegans?” and “Bicycles can’t stand on their own because they are nearly always two tired”.

While personality plays a part in political tweeting, the most commonly tweeted about subjects by MPs remain “serious” political ones. The political occasions that racked up the most tweets last year were the announcements of the Budget and the Autumn Statement – with more than 5,000 tweets sent out by MPs about both events.

The informality of Twitter allows politicians to receive, as well as transmit, ideas too. Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, has gained a reputation for replying to constituents and debating online, for example, embodying a sense of direct democracy that is popular with voters. 

With the freedom that the internet entails comes responsibility and some MPs run close to the line. In April, the Conservative party vice chair Michael Fabricant was sacked for tweeting about the party's besieged Culture Secretary: “Maria Miller has resigned. Well, about time.” It was the latest in a series of social media offerings from the mischievous MP that were viewed as less than helpful by CCHQ.

Fabricant had the last word though, using Twitter to broadcast the news of his political demise, tweeting: “Been asked to resign as Vice Chairman, refused, so sacked over HS2 and my views on a recent Cabinet Minister. Still available 4 speeches etc”.

He found himself mired in deeper controversy in June when he tweeted about leftwing journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown that he could not appear with her on television, or else “I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by punching her in the throat.” A Twitterstorm of outrage ensued, in which Fabricant was derided as misogynistic.

Embarassing gaffes are also easy to make on Twitter. Labour MP Jack Dromey, husband of deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, elicited ridicule last November for “favouriting” a gay pornography website, which he claimed was a mistake. It emerged at the same time that the official No 10 Twitter account had followed an escort agency account, which officials blamed on an "auto-follow" facility that was employed up to 2009.

In recognition of the importance of Twitter for politicians, Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, has even launched a series of annual awards for the best, and the worst MPs on the site. The politicians’ ratings are based on how entertaining and informative they are, but also their engagement with constituents and the regularity with which they tweet.

Labour shadow health minister, Jamie Reed topped the survey last summer for retaining a sense of authencity and humour (rare for a frontbencher on Twitter), while Tory minister Brandon Lewis was crowned worst for the “self-regarding triviality” of his tweets.

As more politicians join Twitter and take enthusiastically to the medium, the impact of social media on our political process will continue to grow.

This piece forms part of our Social Media Week. Click here to read the introduction, and here to see the other pieces in the series.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times