A sign of the times? Newly installed Conservative vice-chair for young people and MP for Mansfield Ben Bradley has had to apologise after BuzzFeed revealed that he had called for the unemployed to be given vasectomies and warned that an overly-generous welfare would lead to the emergence of a “vast sea of wasters” in a 2012 blogpost (he was 23 at the time). He said that “his time in politics has allowed me to mature and I now realize that this language is not appropriate”. Downing Street have said that they won’t be sacking him.
In late 2017, Jared O’Mara, briefly the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, lost the whip and his place on the women and equalities select committee after a slew of forum posts of a homophobic and sexist he made throughout his 20s emerged. (He is still an MP but is highly unlikely to regain the party whip.)
And in 2015, Mhairi Black, the then newly-elected SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, made headlines for expletive-laden tweets she sent as a 15-year-old about her nights out.
What all three politicians have in common is that they are under the age of 40: O’Mara is 36, Bradley 28, and Black is 23. They have all grown up predominantly online, and are in some ways the first of their kind: MPs who take office with a large back catalogue of remarks made on the Internet.
However, the differences are just as important as the similarities. Black’s posts probably if anything helped the SNP as while they were unusual for a politician they were exactly what you’d expect an ordinary teenager to do online. As one problem all parties have is that they are seen as the preserve of an eccentric elite, this was all to the good as far as the perception of the SNP as a different kind of party went.
There were three problems with Jared O’Mara’s posts. The first was that they fed into the idea that recent allegations against him of misogynistic behaviour were more likely to be true. The second was that after he gave a moving apology for posts made in his early 20s, causing Labour MPs from across the party to row behind him, it emerged that he had made posts in his late 20s and was accused of bad behaviour just weeks before his election. One reason why he is unlikely to be welcomed back to Labour any time soon is that a number of MPs feel as if they were lied to and subsequently humiliated when more information about his behaviour came out.
The third was that the content of his remarks were unacceptable to the vast bulk of MPs and activists in the Labour party. They were also unpalatable to the country at large but that’s a secondary issue. Bradley’s remarks are unacceptable to people in the Labour party, and would have resulted in his suspension, but there is a large constituency in the country for hostile rhetoric to people on social security. The crucial difference between the two is that the ideas behind O’Mara’s remarks are unacceptable within the Labour party but the policies that Bradley wrote in support of are still party policy, while the broader sentiment, while fringe, is given house room in in the Conservative Party.
But the risk they pose to the Conservative Party is that while the remarks in the abstract are not unpopular, they feed into a negative perception of the Tory party that the appointment of Bradley and the other 11 vice-chairs at CCHQ is meant to counteract rather than to reinforce.
It is a source of no small amount of irritation to Conservatives that Labour have not yet acquired a reputation for nastiness, but they haven’t, so the O’Mara scandal just isn’t as damaging to the Opposition.
The interesting question is whether or not these new scandals are a sign of things to come, a strange interregnum in which politicians with a large digital footprint are judged more harshly than their peers or just more of the same.
On balance, I’m inclined to think that this is one area where digital politics hasn’t changed as much as we think. Politics has always had politicians or parties who have sought to present themselves as different or “ordinary” – Black’s tweets weren’t part of a conspiracy to do so but they certainly helped. There have always been a few candidates elected in surprising circumstances, who, like O’Mara, have rapidly been at the centre of questions over whether or not they are effective. And every time a Conservative politician has been rolled out to demonstrate “change”, some story from their past has been unearthed which they’ve had to disavow with varying degrees of success.
The age of the internet has changed the medium, and perhaps increased the speed, but not really the process. At least: not yet.