THIS article’s tagline could essentially read: “Why does politics in 2017 make absolutely no sense and does it even matter if nuclear apocalypse is imminent?” Because, really. America’s version of Alan Sugar and North Korea’s answer to Russell from Up (the one in the Boy Scouts) are at any given time literally seconds away from destroying the entire planet.
In a way, we’re rather lucky (almost) that the UK’s domestic politics throws up questions like “What did nappies ever do to Jacob Rees Mogg?” or “Why does Theresa May look so sinister eating chips?”.
Okay, so things are a little bit more serious than that. Politics in the UK over the last two years has been, quite frankly, a hot mess. Every single major political party has held leadership elections, some more brutal than others. David Cameron seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Poor Nick Clegg has followed suit and was last seen wandering around Sheffield in the rain, like a bad Arctic Monkeys video. One shocker of a referendum and a further snap election nightmare later, and it’s safe to say that at this point we are all just floating around in a sea of uncertainty while David Davis shouts that “EVERYTHING IS JUST FINE.”
Politics in the UK over the last two years has been, quite frankly, a hot mess.
So does it really come as any surprise that in such unstable, tumultuous (sorry, I mean very strong and very stable) times, things have gotten a little heated? Politics has never been about holding hands around campfires, but as of late someone has definitely turned the heat right up. Things deteriorated so drastically in this year’s general election that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting an inquiry into the “abuse and intimidation” experienced by MPs across the political spectrum. When it emerged a couple of weeks ago that Diane Abbott had received 45 per cent of all abusive tweets in the six weeks leading up to the election, no one could really say they were surprised. Grimly disappointed maybe, but surprised? No.
in 2017, we log onto Twitter every morning almost expecting to see some kind of social media based scandal
Because, in 2017, we log onto Twitter every morning almost expecting to see some kind of social media based scandal – whether it’s the racist abuse Dianne Abbott was and is subjected to, or the leaking of WhatsApp messages from a Young Conservative group talking about “gassing chavs”. Tory MP Anna Soubry received two death threats in three days for expressing her support for Lib Dem candidate Zac Goldsmith’s pro EU sentiments. It might be easy to think that male Conservative MPs were exempt from this kind of targeted harassment, but a recent analysis by Buzzfeed News found that when broken down by party and gender, they were the group who received the highest percentage of abuse via Twitter. Every day, people are able to vocalise their inner most thoughts and ping them right over to their local MP as and when they please. Even if those thoughts are mainly expletives.
In yet another recent mini scandal (this is the last one, I promise), the newly elected Labour MP Laura Pidcock announced that she had “absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them [Tories]”. Naturally, this slightly over zealous exclamation was met with equally damning criticism, with journalist Stephen Daisley denouncing Pidcock as “dazzlingly simple”. Fairly standard political jostling, you might think.
But not even bystanders are exempt from abuse. Just last week when it emerged that the BBC’s chief political editor Laura Kuenssberg was allocated a bodyguard in order to attend the Labour Party’s conference, Twitter exploded. Journalist Gabby Hinsliff shared a selection of the kinds of targeted messages she had seen directed towards Kuennsberg on social media, including “Not exactly Kate Adie in a war zone”, describing the senders as a “small, self-righteous and aggressively entitled minority within the left”. Harriet Harman, the party’s former deputy, echoed these concerns – on Twitter, obviously – bemoaning both the backlash and the necessity for such security in the first place. James Kirkup, writer for The Spectator, described the recent tidal wave (better than I ever could) as a “nasty, corrosive trend in British politics, for which people of all parties bear some responsibility, towards actively and aggressively targeting journalists, in the apparent hope of deterring them doing their jobs.”
So whatever happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s plea for a “gentler, kinder” politics?
So whatever happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s plea for a “gentler, kinder” politics? In his maiden speech to the Labour Party Conference in September 2015, the political outsider set out his vision for the future: “Cut out the personal abuse, cut out the cyber-bullying and especially the misogynistic abuse online and let’s get on with bringing real values back into politics.”
Well-intentioned words, certainly, but the inevitable issue Corbyn has faced was rather cuttingly summed up by J.K. Rowling last week – on Twitter, of course – as she described the Labour Party as a “solipsistic personality cult.” Anyone who went to any festival in the UK this summer will quickly confirm that the cries of “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn” could be heard from the portaloo queue to the silent disco. This was echoed at the Labour Party’s annual conference, where attendees were able to purchase all manner of Jez-based memorabilia.
it makes perfect sense that the rise of personality politics alongside an increase in online and offline abuse are inextricably linked
I think it makes perfect sense that the rise of personality politics alongside an increase in online and offline abuse are inextricably linked. Whether you’re more Momentum or Moggmentum, people like Corbyn and Rees-Mogg because, well… they’re likeable. People are able to identify with their more visible human sides. It’s basic human psychology. When someone or something we’re slightly ambivalent or neutral about is taken down a notch, it barely makes a dent in our lives. But when we invest, and empathise, and relate with a passion; it feels very much like a personal insult. So we react accordingly. We take to social media and profess our hatred for “Tory scum” or “the tolerant left”, because politics is personal. Everyone in politics is a person (allegedly), and what is politics about, if not people?
It’s more than likely that personality politics is causing such a stir because it’s relatively shiny and new in the realm of British politics. Traditionally, British politicians have possessed a kind of quiet stoicism that’s slightly embarrassed by great displays of cult-like tribalism. But when the leader of the free world tweets more than most British teenagers, maybe it’s inevitable that everyone else will.