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Revolution in the blogosphere: Tom Harris and Eric Joyce in controversy

Two significant moments in the British political blogosphere, involving backbench Labour MPs, raise important questions about the role of modern politicians.
Gerry Hassan
16 November 2010

Two significant moments in the British political blogosphere: Tom Harris’s declaration that he is retiring from writing a blog, and Eric Joyce’s attack on voters as ‘liars’ and then subsequent qualification/semi-withdrawal.

Harris and Joyce have many similarities: both are Scottish Labour MPs of a fairly undiluted right-wing character, both are identified Blairites, and have attracted and courted all kinds of controversies with their opinions: Harris in identifying himself as an anti-Brownite when Gordon Brown was PM, and Eric Joyce in willingly portraying himself as the most gung-ho warmongering Labour MP in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Tom Harris’s blog, ‘And another thing’ became one of the must read Westminster blogs, regularly ruffling feathers and making news, and consistently being voted one of the best political blogs in Iain Dale’s annual round-up of blogs. Well now – with similarities to Tony Blair’s long goodbye – and Sinatra like – Harris has announced he is shutting up shop.

In a blog entitled, ‘A Blessed Relief’ he writes that he is calling it a day:

I love blogging because I love writing. I love politics, I love the Labour Party, I love writing about Labour Party politics.

But the blog has become a burden. It’s taking up too much time (though not as much as some might think – I am a very fast writer), it’s getting me into too many squabbles with people I have never met and are likely never to meet. And increasingly I’ve felt like I’m adopting stances simply for the sake of being confrontational and provoking a row.

Most of us who have a profile on the blogosphere can relate to these last comments, and he concludes:

Basically, the bottom line: blogging is having a negative effect on my personal, family and political life for reasons too many and complicated to recount.

On the same day, Eric Joyce on ‘Labour Uncut’ has written a blog entitled ‘Liar, Know Thyself’ which isn’t directly on the Phil Woolas affair, but indirectly is, addressing the themes of how voters see politicians, and the contradictory pressures and expectations which voters all have.

This all sounds fine and relatively uncontroversial so far. But the former Major Eric Joyce has a reputation for finding controversy and disagreement wherever he goes, from his fanatical Blairism and zealous pro-warmongering, to courting trouble over how much money he has spent in parliamentary expenses, and how he has spent it; in 2008 he claimed a total of £183,334 in expenses – making him Britain’s most expensive MP.

Joyce writes tongue in cheek:

So why is it that all politicians, apart from me, are such lying liars? Why are they all, with the same caveat, such cowardly cowards? What’s so wrong with democracy that it only elevates to public office scoundrels and never the pure (me aside)? It’s a puzzle.

He answers his dilemma with the following set of thoughts:

Here’s the truth. It’s hard to lie as a politician because everything we say is subject to enormous scrutiny – we’ll get found out even if we wanted to lie in the first place. But politicians know the lies a lot of people live and they pitch to you accordingly. There’s a lot of lying going on, for sure. The letters-page paragons are right in that respect. But they might want to reflect on who is really doing the lying.

This has got Joyce in a lot of trouble with Michael Fallon, Conservative Deputy Chairman:

This extraordinary online rant demonstrates contempt for the electorate. Yet again, it calls Ed Miliband’s judgement into question. Only a few weeks ago he appointed Eric Joyce to Labour’s front bench [as a Shadow Northern Ireland spokesperson]. 

Joyce felt the need to issue an immediate qualification:

I was simply saying that issues are not always as straightforward as they seem. I have the highest respect for the public and I would never insult voters.

Two blog moments of controversy. Tom Harris retiring for now at least, and Eric Joyce yet again seeking out trouble. These two episodes tell us something about the perils of conducting intelligent political conversation on the web, and what kind of politics and political community we want to aid, and the changing role of politicians and backbench MPs.

I don’t like Tom Harris’s and Eric Joyce’s politics one bit. I regard both of them as symptomatic of the changing style of our politics which is part of the problem. Both are defenders of the status quo: the wider currents of our politics which have taken us to this unfortunate position, both are unapologetic defenders of parliamentary privilege and tradition – Harris in particular venting his anger on the new IPSA regime at length – and both are strident, shrill voices who like the politics of condemning and attacking opponents, and finding opponents everywhere (sometimes correctly, and sometimes incorrectly).

Harris has grown tired of the world he has created around himself, of hectoring, abusive non-debate, populated by enemies, and a lack of real exchange. Joyce has stumbled yet again into another mini-crisis of his own making, one in a long serial set.

I cant help feeling that Harris and Joyce are – dislikeable as they are in style and content – merely manifestations of a wider set of currents of confusions and changes. What is the point of being a politician today? If one is not a careerist – or more accurately in these two cases – if you are a failed careerist – what is the point of your existence? Harris tried to provide an answer to this through his entertaining and often controversial blog, but it is a question we still need to ask. What is it that we expect of modern politicians? Of backbench MPs? What is the role of the majority of MPs who don’t sit as part of the government payroll vote or opposition equivalent?

What is the point and purpose of being a contemporary politician in the UK? This is a debate we urgently need to have, touching the Phil Woolas controversy, the mounting anger felt at the Lib Dems, and the whole anti-politician public mood which has not dissipated since the expenses scandal a year and a half ago.

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