Potty-mouthed politicians

Having the support of constituents is now secondary to Twitter popularity

Artillery Row

I’m a swearer – I eff and blind as good as any fishwife. But then, the only person I’ll upset is my mother. Neil Coyle, on the other hand, is not only a politician, but a politician who has already been slapped on the wrist by his constituents for using “blue” language. Despite all this, at half past eleven on Tuesday evening, Coyle let rip on Twitter yet again.

Responding to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s tweet about the controversy over the BBC Proms, Coyle said: “I have spent years warning local people that these fat old racists won’t stop blaming the EU when their sh*t hits the fan. Here they come blaming others. Absolute sh*tbag racist w*nkers.” While retweeting a post from Nigel Farage bellowing Rule Britannia, Coyle said: “If you didn’t hate it before, feel free to hate the song now. I’ve never known anyone but sh*tlickers like it tbh.”

It took Coyle until the morning to delete his tweets, adding strength to the rumours that he was pissed at the keyboard. (Although, the artful use of asterisks suggest he knew what he was doing, even if he had quaffed half a bottle of chardonnay.) We’ve all been there – on my first day of being trusted with the password to the social-media accounts of a magazine I used to work for, I tweeted a misspelt warning about a “bumb” scare in Camden while blind drunk. (There was no bomb, either.) You don’t even have to be on the sauce to blunder online – back in 2011 Ed Balls revealed his narcissism by attempting to search himself, instead tweeting his own name. Then there are the mistakes that aren’t really mistakes at all – like when Grant Shapps announced the “bingo & beer” budget tweet, managing to piss off every working-class voter in the country, or Emily Thornberry’s infamous “image from #Rochester” tweet of a white van and an England flag.

For many MPs, likes and retweets have become more important than the support of their constituents

Some have called for Coyle’s resignation over his foul mouth. Swearing is not a sackable offence for an MP – nor should saying obnoxious things on Twitter threaten your job. If that were the case, almost all MPs would be up for the chop. Never mind his embarrassing attempts to be a “man of the people” by throwing in a few curse words, the real shame of Coyle’s behaviour is how unsurprising it is. MPs now regularly use Twitter as a place to get kudos for sounding off. Back when they were sitting in the House of Commons, it was increasingly obvious that speeches made by MPs were not for the benefit of the room but written to be clipped and shared on Twitter. For many politicians, likes and retweets have become more important than the support of their constituents. Brexit provoked ample examples of this – anti-Brexit MPs crowed about their Remainer credentials to rafts of “#FBPE” supporters on Twitter, despite the fact that many of them represented Brexit-voting regions.

There’s nothing clever about being coarse, in fact, it’s insulting that politicians think being “honest” means being seen to use what they imagine is “everyman” language on Twitter. Labour MPs have form in this regard – Jess Phillips is famous for flaunting her profanity online. But never mind that, what Coyle’s bizarre outburst over the BBC Proms really revealed was his underlying prejudice. Rees-Mogg might be many things but he certainly isn’t “fat” – Coyle was clearly referring to working-class Brexit voters. And while his constituency might have voted to Remain, not all its residents agree with the vitriol espoused by their MP. In fact, it wouldn’t matter even if they had voted to Leave – so strong is Coyle’s disregard for democracy that he told the BBC’s Andrew Neil that he’d refuse the vote in every eventuality: “There is simply too much harm to come from backing Brexit.” Southwark and Bermondsey contain areas like The Blue, home to Jade Goody, and the Kirby Estate, which has a tradition of plastering the England flag across its balconies for the World Cup. I wonder how often Coyle has been out to visit his constituents – I’d wager there are residents there that don’t think singing Land of Hope and Glory makes you a “shitlicker”.

We all know that Twitter is a bubble – populated mainly by middle-class commentators, public figures and the odd gang of trolls. It’s a world where MPs can flaunt their ignorance about the voting public, and have it celebrated as viral content. And while we might laugh at their gaffes and blunders, what’s not so funny is this degradation of politics in the realm of online squabbling. Let politicians like Coyle say what they like online – but Labour politicians should know by now that when it comes to the ballot box, voters aren’t so keen to turn the other cheek.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover