The Public Gallery: Gone fishin’

By - Thursday 11th September, 2014

The Citizen’s weekly politics column returns, and examines the surprise big story of September. But Tom Black warns that we oughtn’t get carried away about the power of Twitter

So what did I miss?

I had a very lovely time at the Edinburgh Fringe (and you can see a snapshot of what I was up to here), but I did wonder about what I was missing back home. Luckily for me, it was a relatively quiet month in Croydon’s politics.

This was unsurprising, really. Summer is known as the Silly Season for a reason, and politics has quietly trundled on. Labour has been in office for more than three months and is therefore still on a little bit of a honeymoon; the Conservatives are focusing more and more on Gavin Barwell’s re-election campaign; and UKIP has selected Winston ‘Was In Veritas’ Mackenzie as its candidate for Croydon North. All fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. Nothing too exciting here, then.

Oh, there was one thing…

Mike Fisher resigns as Tory leader after hiding his £10,000 pay rise from the public

The artist formerly known as Leader of the Conservative Group on Croydon Council.
Photo by Croydon Conservative Party, used with permission.

I know, I know. Stop the presses. This happened last week.

The tail-end of the Silly Season really caught me out this time, I won’t lie. There I was, enjoying a visit to family in cosy, social democratic Denmark and thinking I wasn’t likely to miss much as the summer wound down. Imagine my surprise when the biggest Croydon political story since May comes flying out of the box just as I’m eating birthday pastries with my mum.

I was not the only person caught by surprise, however. Other local commentators, less burdened by 6am flights to Copenhagen, were caught completely off-guard. Only days before the bolt-from-the-blue reveal of Fisher’s ‘naughtiness’ (a term here used to remind us all that he broke no laws, but that doesn’t mean he was behaving in a morally upright manner), the Croydon blogosphere was full of ‘witty’ pastiches of betting shops and the likely odds for leadership contenders in the event that Fisher resigned soon. No-one in Croydon’s online commentariat had any idea that this was looming – when the story broke, they were left to play catch-up.

Because, of course, it was not the ‘Croydon web’ that broke the story – it was the Croydon Advertiser. I’ve long respected its political coverage, in particular the work of the experienced Ian Austen. It was Austen who got on top of this story and broke it on 3rd September.

The storming of the Winter Palace did not involve a hashtag

The result was 72 hours (or so) of public outrage, MPs and councillors manoeuvring for an advantage, and general chaos. A hashtag, ‘#WadGate’, emerged. There was even a Downfall parody. The citizens of Croydon appeared to be mobilising. Well, about ten of them.

Because ten (or fewer) Twitter accounts talking to each other does not start a revolution. It doesn’t even really ignite much of a debate. And, most importantly, it doesn’t reach out to an unengaged Croydon populace.

I’ve talked about this before. I’ve never ‘run the numbers’, but it would surprise me if there were more than 100 or so people in Croydon who regularly use Twitter to discuss the politics of our local area. In a town of 360,000, that doesn’t conjure up images of October 1917.

This shouldn’t be much of an issue, and I’m the first to applaud the tenacity with which the outraged tweeters in question sought to shine as much light as possible on their target. But, with respect, it seems that some of them may have gotten a bit carried away. One even seemed to ‘forget’ who had broken the story in the first place. Twitter is but one of many tools that can be used to engage more of our fellow Croydonians with our local politics. But the small number of people actually involved in spreading ‘#WadGate’ showed that a more engaged populace is going to require more than a social media tool used by less than 5% of people in Croydon.

Don’t get me wrong. Croydon’s online commentators have much to offer our local debate – I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I claimed otherwise. And as David White pointed out, while not everyone uses Twitter, a lot of people get information from it that they then spread through word of mouth.

Above all, there’s no denying that the pressure on Twitter and elsewhere created a de facto 24-hour news cycle for this story. I do believe that made it significantly harder for Fisher to ride out the storm. But let’s not start acting like this was the last scene of V for Vendetta.

What’s next?

For a start, it’s good to be back. I hope that you will continue reading as we gear up for the 2015 battle for Croydon Central (intending no offence to Cllrs Mohan and Benn, their contests are less ‘battles’, more ‘executions’). In the near future, I’ll be assessing what impact the downfall of Gavin Barwell’s colleague, Cllr Fisher, will have on the former’s re-election chances. And we’ll be having a look at Sarah Jones’ campaign too, as she attempts to build a movement that can take the seat off the Conservatives. And will Cllr Tim Pollard, the long-rumoured next-in-line for the Croydon Tory throne, succeed Fisher as their group’s leader?

As ever, your comments, submissions and suggestions are most welcome. I look forward to getting stuck into ‘Cronxpolitik’ once more, and I do hope you’ll join me as I do so.

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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  • Stephen Giles

    “The citizens of Croydon appeared to be mobilising. Well, about ten of them.” Was it really as many as 10? I would say it was just 3 – the redbien/Arfur Towcrate/David White” Triple Alliance” – all dab hands at internet school playground nastiness!