Rather cross with myself tonight.... and cross that I'm having to resort to blogging about it too.
I'm naturally quite argumentative, not in that I like to provoke confrontation but in that all too often I can't resist rising to the bait. (OK, and sometimes kicking things off too). This is sometimes a good thing, in that it means I engage more and debate more with all sorts of people whereas other MPs might well say 'well, they're obviously a Tory' or 'what do you expect from a Lib Dem' and ignore them. Or especially 'but there's no votes in it'. But it's sometimes a bad thing in that it's easy - particularly on Twitter - to get drawn into online spats.
Such a situation arose tonight when the blogger (sorry, "the UK's most influential political blogger") Iain Dale 'overheard' a conversation between me and someone else, when I was a little disparaging about his magazine, Total Politics. I get sent a free copy as an MP, but don't get round to reading it often. It seems to me a bit lightweight, a bit gossipy, and I don't like the fact that it gives Iain Dale and his sidekick, Shane Greer, a platform on which to appear on various news outlets as supposedly impartial political observers. I accept the magazine is politically balanced, more or less, but that doesn't mean that they are.
Anyway, Iain Dale got upset, as he often does, and bandied around words like 'petty' and 'pathetic', at which point I blocked him. For non-Twitter people that means he can't see my tweets and can't send tweets to me. In other words, in the words of his idol, Cliff Richard, "we don't talk anymore". (And no, that's not a feeble attempt to smear; he loves Cliff, which is his prerogative, if a little weird.)
Some might think this rather an overreaction. Cue all the usual stuff about 'MPs are supposed to be thick-skinned' and 'you're obviously not willing to engage' or 'you only want to talk to people who agree with you', which is patent nonsense, if you look at the number of people I do follow on Twitter and the amount of to-ing and fro-ing I do in conversation with them.
So why did I block him? Partly it's just because he caught me at the wrong time. But also because it seems clear to me that the Tory strategy on Twitter is to try to provoke me into spats, so that I end up spending all night arguing with them rather than engaging with 'real' people. This has the dual purpose of drawing attention to themselves (and most of them are rampant self-publicists), and of making me look like I'm someone who spends all her spare time in undignified online squabbling. It looks especially bad if people come to the argument late, and wonder what on earth is going on.
I therefore have two choices - try to ignore them, which means they're still there as an irritant, or block them so that I can use Twitter for enjoyment and engagement, which is how it should be used. In the case of Iain Dale (and Shane Greer and Tory Bear before him) I've decided to block because, frankly, I'm fed up with them. That's allowed, isn't it?
Also, today, I blocked a young Tory activist who has been going on and on and on at me for months, and I've been very tolerant and patient with her but my patience is now exhausted. (And yes, Einy, you're welcome to comment on here if you want to). Apart from that I've blocked a few libertarians, the BNP and a few people who were being plain nasty. And people offering me Britney Spears videos, which really aren't my sort of thing.
I simply don't agree with those who say that as an elected politician I'm under a 'duty' to engage with absolutely everyone, no matter how unpleasant they are.
Let's get a few things straight: I'm not under any obligation to use Twitter in the first place, or to blog, or to use Facebook, or whatever. I'm not under any obligation to engage with anyone who isn't a constituent. (And even that has its limits: The guy who threatens physical violence against me and my staff? The guy who phones up every Monday for a racist rant?) I do it - the social media stuff - out of choice, and I don't therefore think anyone is in a position to dictate to me how I do it. Criticise by all means, but when Louise Bagshawe (a Tory PPC and chick-lit author) tells me that she 'expects' me to engage with 'the UK's most influential political blogger', well sorry Louise, you have no right to tell me what you 'expect' from me, anymore than I have the right to tell you I 'expect' a sequel to "Sparkles" by year end.
Even the fact I have a Party position, as so-called Twitter Tsar (which isn't what it's called at all but never mind), doesn't bring with it an obligation to put up with insults if I don't feel like it. Judge me if you want for not being able to handle the heat of the kitchen, but it's still my prerogative if I choose to spend what is after all my spare time with people whose company and conversation I enjoy.
Second thing: I accept it was a clumsy move to talk in terms of Iain Dale as not being 'my political equivalent', and that people who don't see the wider picture of Labour/ Tory use of new media would perhaps think I was being rather up myself (to use an even less elegant phrase). Anyone who is in the slightest bit au fait with my activities on Twitter will know that I'm certainly not precious about who I talk to. I talk to Bristol people and Labour activists and teenage Tories, and Esther Rantzen, and people who ask me very silly questions at the behest of a Geordie comedian. The point I was trying to make, in response to Louise Bagshawe saying she 'expects' me to talk to Iain Dale because he's 'the most important' blogger, was that I'm fed up with the Tories sending unelected and unaccountable troops out of the trenches whilst the real politicians hide in their bunkers. How often do you see Dale, Greer, Tory Bear, Guido, Tim Montgomerie, Fraser Nelson, etc, etc as pundits on TV programmes? Where are all the Tory MPs? And it's exactly the same in the blogosphere and on Twitter. This isn't accidental, this isn't because Tory MPs just happen to be busier or less sociable or less able to handle an iPhone. It's because - and I've had this from several reliable sources now - Tory HQ doesn't want their MPs talking online. Everything is being incredibly tightly controlled, so that no-one strays off message, which is why you only see the mavericks like Douglas Carswell and Nadine Dorries and the glorious Ian Liddell-Grainger sticking their necks out.
So the point I was trying to make, albeit clumsily, is that it's easy for the likes of Dale, who is unelected and unaccountable and answerable to no-one (except Andy Coulson (?)) to try to stir things up on Twitter, and provoke a spat. They very rarely do it over politics; they do it over silly little things, usually when their egos have been bruised. People expect a certain standard from me, but not from them, because, frankly, who cares really what the likes of Tory Bear does or says? What they gain from it, at my expense, is publicity, and I'm simply not willing to give it to them. And that includes going on Channel 4 news to discuss head to head with Iain Dale this latest spat. (I thought it was a joke when I first saw the tweet from C4 asking me if I was up for it. The Prime Minister has been in Afghanistan, world leaders are gathering in Copenhagen, and they want to devote part of their airtime to me and Iain Dale talking about why I find him annoying?!)
So - to summarise... I tweet because I want to, when I want to and with whom I want to. And I won't miss Iain Dale, even if he misses me...