The Public Gallery: Careless tweets cost… votes?

By - Thursday 27th March, 2014

There’s trouble on t’Twitter: Tom Black considers the consequences of social media victimisation for political life in Croydon

It was a particularly raucous session of full council on Monday night. But aside from unusual levels of noise from Labour, and a few farewell speeches from retiring (or deselected) councillors, it was nothing particularly out of the ordinary. When the council actually began debating a motion about who should win the next council elections (you read that correctly), the evening went beyond parody.

I’m actually tired of finding new and innovative ways of phrasing ‘they mostly behaved like children’, so I won’t. You can listen to the whole thing, should you so desire, here. Citizen contributor Sean Creighton has written up some thoughts on the evening’s events to be published soon.

Stop trying to make ‘Holegate’ happen

Last month, a man in Croydon posted a tweet. In the tweet, he said New Addington was a ‘hole’. A lot of people got upset, and many thought it was unconstructive, rude or just downright unpleasant. Personally, I’m inclined to agree with them.

But the tweeter in question was a Labour Party member. What followed was an attempt by local Conservatives to link his remark with the view of the party. On Monday, this culminated in New Addington’s Cllr Tony Pearson quoting the remark as ‘an example of what Croydon Labour thinks of New Addington’.

The controversy was covered in a TPG some weeks ago when it was ‘just’ a Twitter spat, but the fact it’s now been raised in the council chamber – to literal outcry from members of the public present – makes this an even more concerning chapter in our politics. To treat local party members as appointed representatives of the party in question is madness. What’s more, it smacks of bullying. Cllr Alison Butler pointed out that Mr Wilcox suffers from mental health issues, to which Cllr Pearson replied that he has depression. Well, that makes everything alright, then.

Political parties should obviously aim to bring together like-minded people. However, they are not responsible for the behaviour and views of every single one of them. There are, of course, exceptions when extremes come into play. An individual spouting racial hatred or endorsing illegal or violent activities would be expelled from his or her party as a matter of course.

All this is right and proper. But this implied proposal (currently pursued by the Croydon Tories for reasons that smell a little bit like convenience) to make anyone who is associated with a political party into an official spokesman for said party is downright dangerous. What can we expect next?

The other night, I overheard a Tory-boy at a bar ‘explain’ that the reason Thatcher is hated in the north is ‘she gave them real jobs, they just didn’t want to do them’. Is this an indictment of Vidhi Mohan’s attitude toward the people of Newcastle?

If a child carrying a red balloon pushes over her little sister, are we expected to ask tough questions about where Wayne Lawlor stands on child-pushing?

If a local Lib Dem member tweets about their frustration over the queue in Waitrose, will the ensuing media circus bring down Nick Clegg as a ‘public enemy of the British supermarket’?

If we want a public sphere even more devoid of personalities, then we should meekly go along with this victimisation of Mr Wilcox. If we actually seek to engage more people with politics – and local Conservative activists have assured Citizen readers they do - trying to frighten local volunteers into silence isn’t the way to do it.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Mario Creatura

    Not wishing to side with anyone, but you omit one crucial detail. Mr Wilcox has said on a number of occasions that he is one of a select few that has been training Sarah Jones, the Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Croydon Central, to help her win the election. Assuming he’s not lying, does that not alter your position that he’s just a regular Labour Party member? Does his personal view on New Addington therefore not make him something more than an innocent bystander?

    That said, I agree with your overall point. Most political parties are very broad churches, bound together with several strong strains of ideology. We come together using strength of numbers to make decisions for the greater good. On balance we agree with our fellow members and leaders, but we should never be tied inescapably to everything they say. Too often this is ignored, so it’s a point well made for the regular party member.

    • Tom Black

      I think he *is* lying, actually. Or at least has/had the wrong end of the stick. I made some enquiries as to whether he was involved in any capacity in ‘training’ Sarah Jones or any local Labour candidates, and the answer was no. He also claims he briefs your boss, Mario – we both know the ‘briefings’ are aggressive tweets with links in them.

      I’d also point out that to my knowledge Mr Wilcox has not claimed to be a ‘candidate trainer’ for some months – it could be that he hoped to be involved in Sarah Jones’ team in some way, but this ultimately didn’t happen.

      Don’t believe everything you see in online comments… I’m aware of the irony there ;)

      Glad you agree with my broader point. There’s a fine distinction, but it’s crucial to mobilising an energised and engaged electorate.

      • Stephen Giles

        The fact remains that Mr Wilcox is no doubt playing the “mental health card”, and should therefore keep his mouth shut.

        • ArfurTowcrate

          Well, if *you* say so, Stephen. Mind you, that would be disability discrimination – illegal, as well as immoral.

          • Stephen Giles

            Well I do say so – and you sir are playing the “discrimination card”, as some indeed play the “race card”.

        • Tom Black

          I don’t actually think this is the case. Mr Wilcox has brought up his mental health in questionable circumstances before – I can recall when he rather pointedly asked Owen Jones ‘what [his] problem [was] with schizophrenics’ during a disagreement between the two men. But in this instance, as Terry Coleman pointed out above and the record shows, it is others (including myself) who have introduced Christian’s mental health into this specific matter. He has not sought to hide behind it at any point.

          Furthermore, I don’t think that even if Mr Wilcox (who is no fan of mine) *were* ‘playing the mental health card’ (and I don’t think he is in this instance), this would discredit anything at all he has to say. No-one should have to ‘keep their mouth shut’ based on someone else’s say-so – yours or mine.

          • Anne Giles

            Mental health issues are difficult. I worked in a male prison and later in a mental hospital and had to be very diplomatic all the time. There is so much anger and paranoia and they really cannot help it. I was attacked for smilng at someone at the Maudsley Hospital because she thought I was laughing at her. If someone thinks New Addington or any other area is “a hole”, then it is their mind that thinks that and nothing any of us can say will change that person’s mind, which makes me feel very sorry.

  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article, as usual.

  • Terry Coleman

    Goodness gracious me, do we live in a country of free speech?
    I’m thankful that I no longer belong to a political party.
    I may say what I jolly well please, within the bounds of common decency and good taste of course!

    On a serious note: I believe that the chap in question should not have had his medical condition commented upon in open forum.
    That was very bad form from all sides.

  • gbsblogs

    I think you make a good point (and as ever it’s a well-written article) but I think there’s a point here that goes beyond Twitter, beyond Croydon and even beyond party politics. It is possible to have vigorous political debate and good manners. Too often we hear people being rude to politicians and politicians being rude too each other. It cheapens proper debate and often robs us of the chance to find solutions.

    I hope that the Croydon Citizen continues to hold everyone who ends up on the council (including myself, if I make it) to hold us to account on this.

    I don’t mind a bit of noise in the chamber, sharp rebuke on policy, impassioned deconstruction of viewpoints and criticism of political tactic but personal rudeness is not necessary.

    One slight thing I’d like to point out though – my understanding is that Tony Pearson didn’t just associate Labour with this view because it was made by a Labour Party member. I believe he also sensed there was a reluctance from Labour to disassociate themselves from them on. Whether this was the case I don’t know, but I believe that was part of the discussion.


    PS – would be grateful if you could strike the term ‘tory boy’ from your vocabulary :-)

    • bieneosa

      Interesting point, Gareth.

      If an individual, who holds no political office, makes comments that are deemed to be inappropriate or offensive, why should a political party (of any hue) feel the need to dissociate themselves from said comments? It is not the job of political parties, in a free society, to police the thoughts or words of ordinary people who happen to be members of their party.

      In relation to this specific incident, I saw this kick off on Twitter, when Christian made the comments, and then work its way to the Facebook page of the New Addington Pathfinders (which was subsequently removed). On this page, Tony Pearson worked up people’s appetitie by informing them that the discussion about council tax during February’s Full Council meeting had “turned nasty”. This was clearly not the case, as I and others who were at the meeting can testify. Meantime, he invited people to find out more via his Facebook page, where I am informed that he stated that Christian’s comments were aligned with the views of the Labour Party. Again, this was clearly not the case. From the conversations I followed on twitter and subsequent discussion on my show, Cllr Simon Hall stated (on twitter) that Christian’s comments were not aligned to the Labour Party and that he does not agree with them. To me, the incident should have ended there.

      However, by bringing it up a Full Council meeting, a place where residents of Croydon expect our elected and opposition councilors to discuss serious issues pertaining to our lives, this wreaked of the lowest form of political game playing.

      Using an individual, who holds no political office, as a weapon to score political points is tantamount to moral bankruptcy. Ask yourself this question: As a prospective councillor, is this the type of behaviour that you look up to and would use as a reference point for best practice? Would you seek to do the same thing as Councillor Pearson? Do you want to use residents in Croydon, who hold no political office, to be pawns in a political battle? All of these things turn people off politics.

      Councillors are elected to serve and, if they are willing to sacrifice ordinary citizens in Croydon in order to help secure their career, perhaps they are in the wrong job.

    • Tom Black

      Thanks for being a regular reader, Gareth.

      Personal rudeness is something we can really do without. A bit of knock-about in the chamber here and there (such as a finely-crafted dig at a failed policy or the like) are a respectable part of our democracy and ought to be protected. Similarly, eloquent disagreements on Twitter or elsewhere are not in and of themselves unhelpful – quite the opposite. But when we get into ‘you are stupid lefties’ vs ‘you are evil tories’ vs ‘you are all on drugs’ vs ‘you’re fat/thin/tall/short/red-faced/weird-looking’ territory, Bagehot starts to turn in his grave.

      You are right that Tony Pearson claimed in the chamber that Labour has not distanced themselves from the remarks. However, I, like Bieneosa, recall Simon Hall doing so implicitly and then explicitly on the night of the remarks themselves. This contention was part of the debate in the chamber on Monday, though, yes.

      PS – I’ll happily do so when they stop existing ;) Unless you can provide me with an alternative that is just as pithy – ‘braying neo-yuppie’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

      • gbsblogs

        Hmmm…so are you saying that a ‘Tory boy’ is a type of Conservative supporter rather than a catch up term for all male activists within the party?

        • Tom Black

          Absolutely, yes. You, as a mild-mannered but passionate activist, are certainly not a ‘Tory boy’, though such men (young and old) still very much exist within the party. I’m sure you’ve met some!

          Harry Enfield’s famous comic character bearing the name ‘Tory Boy’ is a good example (YouTube will have some sketches on it, I’m sure), and in less charitable moments I could point to some within the Croydon Conservatives – but in the interests of public civility, I shan’t do so here.

  • gbsblogs

    Also – just one other point from me. The questions in the headline “careless Tweets cost…votes?”

    I think we’re a long way off Twitter playing a huge role in the outcome of local election campaigns.