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Manufactured outrage will drive young people out of politics

June 3rd 2013


Another week and another social media scandal.  Most recently, the deputy leader of one of Wales’s political parties has come unstuck with a series of posts on his website.   However the manufactured outrage expressed some is in danger of damaging our politics and driving young people out.

The politician in question is Chris Were (Chris who? you might ask).  Were is the deputy leader of the Wales Green Party, and former Green activist Anne Greagsby along with Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives have all condemned his online posts.  Plaid have gone as far as to call for his expulsion from the Green party arguing it unacceptable that someone with “such a prominent position” who is in “the public eye” should use such language.

Were has now removed the comments but edited highlights were reproduced by Martin Shipton in the  Western Mail (May 15th).   Were’s comments are clearly unacceptable and fall short of what one might expect from someone seeking public office.  But was Plaid Cymru’s response measured?

Without wishing to offend, the Wales Green Party has hardly been an electoral force, and describing the deputy leadership of the party as a ‘prominent position’ is perhaps slightly stretching reality.  With Chris Were as their lead candidate, the Greens garnered in 2011 just 4,857 votes in South Wales East out of an electorate of 469,486.  I doubt Plaid’s Lindsay Whittle will have any sleepless nights worrying about whether he’ll lose his list seat to Chris Were come 2016.

It goes without saying that sexist, racist and homophobic remarks are repellent, from anyone, whoever they may be.  But the manufactured outrage expressed by some over Were is hypocritical and risks driving young people out of politics.

With over 33 million users in the UK, Facebook is rapidly replacing the pub or the rugby club as the place for social interaction.  Our next generation of politicians will have grown-up on social media.  And while prejudiced remarks are never acceptable, we need to do more to accommodate the Facebook mistakes and Twitter indiscretions of young people, and young political activists in particular.

Labour’s James Brinning, then 19 should not have been suspended as a Cardiff council candidate for remarks he posted as a 15 year old.  Paris Brown, the former police youth commissioner for Kent should have been properly vetted before her appointment.

The public already feels that politicians are a breed apart from ordinary people.  The increasing professionalisation of our politics is feeding the nation’s mood of political disengagement.   Some parties now advise candidates to remove online accounts and edit profiles.  If we don’t allow young political activists to be real people, then the next generation of politicians will look even less like the people they seek to represent.

Of course a line needs to be drawn and we wouldn’t expect a budding AM to have a Tweet feed akin to Frankie Boyle.  But all political parties need to call a cease-fire on the ‘outrage arms-race’.   Party machines should respond appropriately to inappropriate comments, and opponents should concede space for an apology rather than baying for blood.

In Were’s case, his party leader was spot on.  While distancing herself from his comments, Pippa Bartolotti said “The Green Party is a forgiving party.  The deputy leader is a young person with lessons to learn”. 

Given the reaction of other political parties, it seems it’s not just Chris Were who has some lessons to learn.

Steve Brooks is director of the Electoral Reform Society Wales and a Trustee of the Bevan Foundation. He writes in a personal capacity and also tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

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