Since at least the end of the Second World War, we’ve lived in an era of the mass political party. In the 1950s, three million people were members of the Conservative Party, and over a million of the Labour Party. 84% of the electorate turned out to vote, and most thought it was their democratic and civic duty to do so.
Politics has changed. Today, less than 1% of the electorate is a member of a political party. At the end of 2013, Labour had around 190,000 members and the Conservatives – reportedly – 150,000. Notwithstanding recent surges in UKIP, SNP and, latterly, Green Party membership, the long decline of formal party membership is clear and general. Underneath this decline in membership has been a decline in trust. 85% of British citizens distrust political parties. And it’s not just the UK. 73% do so in Germany, and 89% in France.
This shift is mostly generational. Young people are the least likely to have voted, for instance, in the 2009 European Parliament election, and the least likely to believe it is their duty to do so. They are also the least likely to be a member of a political party. Yet young people are not politically apathetic. Research conducted by Demos over the last few years has found that most young people care about political questions, are keen to play a role in the political process, and want to make their community and country a better place. However, they are going elsewhere to do politics and to try to make a difference. The place they are increasingly turning to is outside of mainstream politics, and on to the internet and social media.
Social media platforms are now significant digital-political spaces, used by people to pursue their beliefs and passions for a better world broadly outside of the mainstream institutions they trust so little. On Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people routinely flock to collectively experience important political events – PMQs, conferences, debates and speeches. During the independence referendum, Yes Scotland went so far as to issue a guide for their supporters on what to tweet during the debate – with helpful phrases to counter Unionist arguments. Labour has imported David Axelrod for 2015, a key digital strategist of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Make no mistake: underneath the bustling ephemera and relentless transience of your Twitter and Facebook feeds, tectonic changes are underway. The explosion of these new platforms is redefining the basic way that hundreds of thousands of people relate to political parties and politicians, especially the young, and especially those that otherwise have little to do with politics.
But what is this age of hashtag activism and of Facebook assemblies really like? Here are some predictions for how social media will play out in the run up to May.
A new digital currency
There is now a new digital currency to demonstrate party-political affiliation and support: the like, the follow, the retweet and the favourite. Mainstream parties will desperately try to capitalise on this reservoir of digital support, and both try to grow it in its own right, and also achieve that rare alchemy of converting it into boots on the ground, donations and, ultimately, votes.
MPs are becoming more and more active on Facebook and Twitter. They have realised – to many, it has been an uncomfortable realisation – that they cannot afford to be absent, and that this is a new battleground they need to dispute. They will move more and more of their campaigning onto social media. During the general election campaign, MPs will communicate with the public constantly and directly. This spells an end to Alastair Campbell’s media grid, of the tight grip of a powerful central communications hub controlling what MPs say. MPs and candidates will be more visible than ever before, whether prominent and obscure, frontbench or backbench, in safe seats, key marginal or contesting hopeless campaigns. Expect more diversity, colour and probably honesty from MPs on the campaign trail.
But they are being dragged onto platforms that hate them: parties intend to use social media to broadcast and spread their messages as far, wide and influentially as possible. Social media will have other ideas. One of the reasons people have flocked to Twitter in their millions is because it offers them something that mainstream media does not: they can use it on their own terms. Politicians are entering an arena they often do not understand and certainly do not control. This will be an election where, professionalised, hierarchical mainstream parties come under greater and new kinds of pressures.
Boos vs cheers
Twitter is a fairly hostile place at the best of times, but it especially hates politics, politicians and the establishment. At my think tank, Demos, we’ve been listening to Twitter’s reaction to political events, including the Euro debate between Clegg and Farage, the first and second Referendum debates and Miliband’s and Cameron’s conference speeches. In each case, people have thronged onto Twitter collectively to shout abuse at all the politicians involved. Boos have always overwhelmed cheers, and usually in enormous volumes. In their most recent speeches, Miliband was booed four times for every cheer, Cameron ten. The level of anti-politics on Twitter is hard to overstate – go and look at the latest response to any Tweet by a cabinet minister. I’m willing to bet it’ll be abusive.
The New York police asked people to tweet pictures of cops in the community on #myNYPD. People posted pictures of tear gas and alleged brutality. McDonald’s asked people to tell their delicious culinary tales on #McDStories. People told their own stories, of poor health, unsanitary conditions and bad employment practice. The Conservatives at their last party conference set up a hashtag for people to engage with. During Cameron’s speech, UK Uncut certainly did engage, with a systematic, deliberate attempt to hijack the hashtag to highlight the suffering caused by Tory austerity.
Activists, NGOs and others will use social media to answer back. They will not be docile, and will not follow the lead or wishes of the campaigns. Almost every official hashtag during the election campaign will suffer some form of invasion, some much worse than others, as people flex their new vocal chords on social media to define and frame the discussion as they want.
Spasms of popular reaction will spontaneously emerge in reaction to the inevitable bloopers and scandals that accompany a campaign. Spoof accounts, YouTube videos, and Photoshopped images will all be created and spread like wildfire. Most virals will be fairly niche, and find little currency outside of a narrow internet subculture. A few will reach millions, and will do serious damage to reputations. As soon as Mitt Romney fatefully said “binders full of women” during his presidential debate, a viral was born that became a running sore for the Republicans.
You tend to follow, and be followed, by people that are similar to you and agree with what you think. This create political echo chambers – where each side of a debate are bombarded with information that consolidates their view of the world. Echo chambers will harm the quality of the debate during the general election. They will push out alternative and dissenting views, and convince people that they are not only politically but also morally superior. During the referendum debate two polarised spheres on Twitter continually shared sprinklings of partisan evidence and stories of the horrors, abuses and stupidity of the other side. This kind of dynamic kills the potential of any meaningful discussion between people who disagree. It makes us treat our political opponents less charitably, less humanely – simply, nastily.
Who will benefit?
Anti-establishment tribes will benefit most from social media. It’s likely that Twitter will help fuel the rise of UKIP, Greens and the SNP in the next few months. Their insurgent, anti-establishment message will spread better than the more measured, typically legalistic communications coming out of the mainstream parties. UKIP tweeters were out in force during the by-election campaigns – they tweeted more than any party about the Heywood and Middleton by-election, and more than all the other parties put together about Clacton. They will use it to continue to gleefully puncture, in their eyes, the cosy complacency of business-as-usual politics. Whether it will help them win any seats is another matter.
This will be an exciting election. The race is close and unpredictable. The one thing that is clear is that the stable loyalties, consistencies and identities of previous elections will have never felt more like a distant memory than in the months ahead.
Image credit: Vincent Diamante