John Rentoul: Twitter: less than it's cracked up to be

There is nothing magic about the 'new media'. They are just another way of showing us what politicians are like
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The Independent Online

Ed Balls is on Twitter. Last week, the Children's Secretary wanted the world to know that he emerged from the cool darkness of the committee rooms below the House of Commons "blinking in the sunlight". He cooked a "v good chilli" stir fry. He (still) thinks "Smooth FM is the best". Gordon Brown, on the other hand, is on YouTube. Not very effectively as everyone knows, even when he's trying to use it to his advantage. Even less effectively when others put him on YouTube, as someone did last week. It was a clip, apparently, of him singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" in a primary school. I couldn't watch it. Meanwhile, David Cameron's constitutional innovation is to have text alerts sent to our mobiles to inform us of a Bill's progress through Parliament.

It is all about "engagement", one of the most insistent background noises of politics for the past eight years. After turnout in the 2001 election fell to 59 per cent, politicians have worried about how to draw voters back into the political process. This year, they succeeded, but not in a way they wanted. The publication of MPs' expenses engaged the attention, moral sense and emotions of the electorate. It convulsed the country, the equivalent of road rage on a national scale, as Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, put it in Prospect.

Many of the politicians' responses to this largely self-inflicted catastrophe have been utterly irrelevant. Brown announced a series of headlines in the Commons last month, under the banner of "constitutional renewal", that was all about "engagement", especially of young people, which the Prime Minister thought might be fostered by giving "further consideration" to lowering the voting age. Or by further reform of the Lords, a written constitution, further devolution and a "debate" about changing the voting system. Most, except the debate on electoral reform, had been announced in his first statement to the House as Prime Minister two years ago, when he declared: "The best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy."

It was meaningless then and it is meaningless now. Tinkering with the constitution is just as irrelevant to the idea of citizens' engagement with politics as Twittering on the internet. As if to prove the point, the MPs' expenses fury was generated by newspapers and then mediated mostly by the traditional print media, television and radio phone-ins.

That is not to say that the "new media" are irrelevant, or that politicians should not use them. Obviously, newspapers, television and radio are all migrating to computers and mobile phones, and getting mixed up with blogs, tweets and all the other funny-sounding gizmos of the brave new media world. If you get a text message from Cameron's citizens' engagement service to tell you that the Bill by which you are fascinated is being debated in the Commons, and you decide to watch it on the Parliament website, the one or two legislators scattered on the benches in the background will probably be blipping through their BlackBerries.

Mostly, the new media are more "democratic" than the traditional media, because they are so much more open – with not just hundreds of TV channels but millions of YouTube users. Anyone can start a blog. But media traffic between politicians and the rest of us is still bound to be mostly one-way. Interactive nonsense (press the red button now) is almost always a gimmick. The idea of instant, interactive democracy will always come up against the problem that there are few representatives and many represented. If enough people feel strongly about something, they have always had ways of making their views known to politicians. In the old days they would riot, or break into newspaper offices and throw printing presses out of windows, or chain themselves to railings, or throw themselves under horses. Or, more sedately, sign petitions. Computers and mobile phones give people more and different ways of receiving news, and more and different ways of protesting about news that they don't like. But the basic relationship is the same.

And that was the trouble with Hazel Blears' jibe at Gordon Brown's expense: "YouTube if you want to." It was funny, but partly because it made no sense. Of course politicians should use YouTube. David Cameron has been quite adept at it. But it is just another way of doing what politicians should be doing anyway, and Cameron comes across well on it because he is at ease in front of a camera in a way Brown is not. And of course politicians should use Twitter and Facebook if they can help. The problem is that, mostly, they can't: much. Ed Balls actually uses Twitter most of the time to draw the attention of supporters and journalists to serious policy stuff that he is doing, but he tries to liven it up with a bit of personal colour – a sort of self-edited running profile. It doesn't work for me, but it is not self-evidently a stupid idea.

The obvious objection, if you don't find it clever or witty, is that the minister must surely have better things to do with his time. But Tom Harris, the Labour MP who was sacked as a junior transport minister by Brown, once mounted a spirited defence of his ability to carry out his ministerial duties and to write about Doctor Who on his blog at the same time. He was right. It is good for politicians to have interests in life beyond politics. I thought better of him for it, just as I warmed to Tom Watson, despite his leading role in Tony Blair's downfall, when he wrote about music, books and the internet. But my better opinion is simply a by-product of their personality coming through a medium that suits them.

Just as in the old days politicians might talk on the traditional media, or at public meetings, or over a cup of tea, about a cultural life including politics, now they can do part of that on the internet. But that should not be confused with some magical new way of communicating with the voters. It's just chat. Or, as we must learn to call it, Twittering.