Political commentator Steve Richards argued in the Independent yesterday that “political leadership is impossible in the age of social media”. He gave a gripping tweet-by-tweet account of how Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to impose his will on the Labour Party of Syrian airstrikes had been undone by dissent spread on Twitter.
Richards concluded that the leadership of political parties, as previously understood, can no longer be done then parties will change shape. This is quite the wrong lesson to draw.
The Labour Party is in a neurotic mess and it would be in one if Corbyn had been elected its leader in the age of the quill pen. The party’s membership is out of line with a significant segment of its MPs. Until one of these bodies brings the other into line, the mess, the rebellions and the tweets will not stop.
Communications media have changed often, switching the conditions and context in which politicians operate and requiring new skills in the armoury of anyone intending to lead. Come to that, political parties have changed across time as the gains to be made by bossing MPs have grown.
New communications platforms are usually greeted with wild over-optimism (the expression of opinion is being democratised!), followed by the discovery that they can be used for bad as well as good (trolling, twitter mobs). That see-saw is most often followed by some restraint under rules or self-restraint which finds the platform take its place in normal life.
In parallel, politicians adjust. Many of them adjust slowly because they pay little attention to the uses of technology. But eventually a leader with enough mastery of communications persuasion emerges near the top and exercises enough domination to get his colleagues to pause and think before they open their mouths or peck at their iPhones.
Even in the age of Twitter this will happen. Just hasn’t happened in the Corbyn Labour Party so far.