Twitter’s bubbles are a blight on British politics

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged my thumb through Twitter instead. For Westminster’s inhabitants, it is the modern morning routine. After coffee, reading the email briefings, more coffee, the day moves on with a scroll through the news feeds. And that is when the outrage descends.

The UK’s political bubble, itself contained within Twitter’s self-selecting bubble of users, is becoming insufferable. What was once an easy way of exploring the news — and an irreverent way of debating it — has turned into a factional cesspit. There is no irony, nuance or compassion for altering points of view. But its damage to the politics and policy is real and deep.

For members of parliament, Twitter has become a constant focus group on what (allegedly) matters: more immediate than scavenging through postbags, far less time-consuming than knocking on doors. Finding out what colleagues, journalists and voters think has never been easier. Yet Twitter is phenomenally unrepresentative. According to the London School of Economics, Twitter has 16mn UK users and the largest demographic is 18 to 29 year olds. During the last election, the Hansard Society reckoned Twitter skewed significantly towards pro-Remain Labour party supporters.

Its immediacy, however, is one of the chief reasons politics has such a shrunken horizon. Issues come and go within hours. When a controversy or gaffe starts trending, parties are forced to react. Take the government’s rail plan published last November: nearly £100bn, the biggest investment in British railways in decades. Twitter cried betrayal because the eastern leg of High Speed 2 was paused; the rest of the announcement was lost.

Serious policy debate is futile. Shouting produces the most clicks. And the damage is clear. Twitter convinced Labour MPs they should nominate Jeremy Corbyn to contest the leadership to “widen the debate”. After last year’s Hartlepool by-election, Twitter prompted a crisis for current leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose reshuffle could be seen collapsing in real time. The vicious army of “cybernats” — extreme online Scottish secessionists — are a poor advert for the independence cause.

In conversations with party insiders who will run the next general election campaigns, I was struck that strategists cited Twitter as the biggest impediment to their team winning. One figure close to Starmer says, “If I could just do one thing in the party, I would get every Labour MP off Twitter.” An influential member of the shadow cabinet concurred: victory will be decided by “whether or not we’re a party that’s dominated by the Twitter conversation”. The MP adds, “All of us as MPs should spend less time on Twitter and spend more time knocking on doors in marginal seats.”

On the Tory side, the party has discounted Twitter for winning votes. One aide said, “It’s only useful to shape the media conversation.” Boris Johnson follows the dictum of his predecessor David Cameron, who remarked “too many tweets might make a twat”. The prime minister never looks at Twitter. “He’s barely spent one minute, let alone five minutes on there,” one senior No 10 figure says.

The obvious prescription is for MPs to wean themselves off the dopamine hit that comes with going viral. But aside from the fact that a mass logging off won’t happen, some upsides would be lost. Remnants of the old political Twitter occasionally remain: informative exchanges, interesting people, a useful stream of news and some fun.

As this week’s local election results filter through, Twitter will be at its worst. If Labour makes gains, avid left-wingers will vent: not good enough! If the Tories make big losses, Johnson’s enemies will call on him to resign. None of that matters. Almost nothing on Twitter really matters. The sooner Westminster realises it, the healthier politics will become.

sebastian.payne@ft.com


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