What this Twitterstorm reveals about Labour

Stuart MacLennan’s real crime was to spout Labour’s prejudices against chavs and old people in an uncouth way.

Neil Davenport

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‘It’s all down to his age’, declared a Labour Party spokesperson last week, defending the expletive-happy tweets of Labour’s 24-year-old ex-prospective parliamentary candidate for Moray, Stuart MacLennan. Last week, the tabloid newspaper the Sun revealed how MacLennan regularly laid into other politicians, X-Factor contestants, old people, young people and the voting public of Moray itself on his Twitter account.

As the Twitterstorm failed to die down, and the Conservatives smelt election blood, Labour leader Gordon Brown intervened and sacked the buffoonish MacLennan, before the electorate had the opportunity to pass their judgement on his Tourettes-style gibberish.

As banal and moronic as MacLennan’s tweets were, he should not have been sacked for apparently being ‘off-message’. Readers commenting on the story on the Sun’s website correctly pointed out that at least MacLennan was being honest about his thoughts and opinions. Perhaps he was taking New Labour’s mantra of ‘transparent government’ to dizzying levels of openness. It seems Brown finally intervened after it was revealed that MacLennan had tweeted about craving ‘slave-grown’ bananas over Fairtrade ones. For a ruling party which imagines itself singularly anti-racist and broad-minded, and everyone else as Nick Griffin voters-in-waiting, such a gaffe simply won’t do.

Apart from this banana-skin slipping blunder, though, nearly everything else on MacLennan’s Twitter page was fully in tune with the Labour government’s vile prejudices. The only difference is that MacLennan’s outpourings had all the subtlety of Rage Against The Machine and all the finesse of a Guy Ritchie film. MacLennan was educated under the New Labour government, making you wonder if he provides a snapshot of the gormless standards we can expect from younger people seeking public office… Certainly it was the glaringly adolescent tone of the ‘fucking fucks’ that made senior Labour leaders wince. Nevertheless the content of MacLennan’s tweets was derived mostly from the government itself, albeit cranked up in, quite literally, big fucking letters.

Take MacLennan’s ‘witty’ observation that old people are simply ‘coffin dodgers’. This echoes the newfound enthusiasm for voluntary euthanasia amongst the political and media class, some of whom now openly argue that having lots of old people with mental health problems is a potential ‘social catastrophe’. Meanwhile, the government’s various proposals to restrict access to healthcare for those who have spent their lives drinking and smoking also send the message that no one has a God-given right to ‘dodge the coffin’. A few years back, someone leaked a government report suggesting that the government doesn’t really need to address the concerns of OAPs as they are probably all a bit racist. And Labour officials wonder where MacLennan gets his poisonous ideas from.

The same is true of MacLennan’s numerous Twitter rants against ‘chavs’. Chav-bashing may be a new cultural expression of age-old class prejudices, but it has been given official sanction by Brown’s government. Indeed, some of New Labour’s main policies are about protecting the ‘squeezed middle classes’ – as Brown put it at the 2009 Labour Party conference – from the feckless, reckless chavs down the road. Bans on public smoking and drinking, greater monitoring of how children are brought up and endless sermons on what families should eat implicitly, and sometimes not so implicitly, suggest that marginalised, white working-class people are Social Problem Number One. They are presented as an alien breed in need of correction before it is too late. MacLennan’s Twitter-expressed hatred for the ‘ugly chavs’ sitting opposite him on a train was only an unmediated expression of what the Labour government thinks of ordinary people.

Indeed, the Sun pointed out that MacLennan’s tweets reveal a mistrust and contempt for the constituents he was seeking to represent. That is true – but at least he didn’t go as far as Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, who in 2008 only dared to walk the streets of Peckham in London, a constituency she has represented for 24 years, wearing a stab-proof vest and flanked by armed police. Nice to see she thinks so highly of her constituents. For these New Labour politicians, dealing with the supposedly unpredictable public is a tiresome inconvenience they could well do without. They’d prefer to get on with the business of decision-making without taking part in an election and speaking to ordinary people.

The idea behind MacLennan’s tweets is that it is bad enough that ‘these people’ physically exist – why aren’t they in coffins yet? – let alone that they have to be represented in a democratically elected House of Commons. The new breed of Westminster politician – David Cameron, David Miliband, Ed Balls – would far rather have more unaccountable vehicles through which to run Britain. MacLennan’s bile-soaked tweets clumsily reveal why.

Of course, you could argue that MacLennan’s gaffes are nothing more than email-style rants, the raging id let loose on the blogosphere. Except that the internet is a widely recognised public space accessible to millions in the same way that newspapers and TV are. Anyone writing on blogs and on Twitter is making a public statement for general public consumption. MacLennan’s tweets were not private correspondence with a few friends, but vanity statements designed to show what he thinks about the world around him (not very much, it seems).

This shows how isolated and hemmed in the political class is from ordinary voters. Making openly derogatory comments about locals in a constituency that you hope to represent, and thinking nobody will notice, speaks to an extremely solipsistic outlook, as if the thoughts, opinions and reactions of those ‘out there’ don’t register anywhere at all. There was one moment of self-awareness, though, when MacLennan joked that Twitter will cause a few casualties in the run up to the election – ‘probably me’, he boasted.

Although MacLennan’s gaffes will be a minor footnote in the annals of the 2010 General Election, in many ways this is a very revealing moment. It shows that the new breed of political class aspires to public office without wanting to deal with the public. Instead, constituents are recast as an ‘ugly problem’ waiting to be controlled rather than democratically represented. MacLennan’s outbursts are down to age, all right, but it’s the nasty, poisonous-minded age we’re currently living and tweeting in that is ultimately the problem.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said the political class views the electorate as an incomprehensible, inscrutable blob. Mick Hume examined today’s You Can’t Say That culture. Tim Black reviewed Dominic Raab’s swashbuckling tirade against New Labour illiberalism. Duleep Allirajah thought banning football players from tweeting will further alienate them from their fans. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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