Online supporters could soon be all political parties have left

On almost every measure, the number of social media supporters is now significantly greater than the number of formal party members.

If you are reading this, the chances are you were linked to this site via either Facebook or Twitter. You are probably an active user of social media and interested in politics one way or another. You know your hashtag from your elbow.

What you almost certainly are not, however, is a formal member of a political party. Membership of political parties in the UK has been falling consistently, and dramatically. The Conservatives had three million in the 1950s: they were the backbone of the party – volunteering, leafleting, attending meetings, fundraising, and of course voting. There are now little over 100,000. Labour has slightly more, but still fewer than 200,000.

Can social media support fill the gap? Yesterday Demos launched a new report, Virtually Members, which analysed the social media supporters of the three main UK parties. On almost every measure, the number of social media supporters is now significantly greater than the number of formal party members.

The number of unique Twitter users that follow at least one Conservative MP, (and no MPs from other parties) is close to 450,000.  Even removing the Prime Minister, there are nearly 300,000. The same is true of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Similarly, in respect of Facebook, the total number of unique users that have ‘Liked’ the official Conservative or David Cameron page is well over 200,000 while both Labour and the Lib Dems are fast approaching the 150,000 mark.

How far these virtual members can replace the sandwich-makers and door-knockers is less clear. But our research found that they are loyal: 70 per cent of those who follow Labour MPs don’t follow MPs from the other parties, and the same is true of the Conservatives. This paints a picture of a political tweeting class that are not only numerous, but also surprisingly tribal. (By contrast, Lib Dems are less faithful – only 40 per cent stick to following their party alone.)  

These people are a younger demographic, and do not limit themselves to banging away angrily on keyboards. The lesson from Beppe Grillo’s remarkable recent success in Italy, or even George Galloway’s win in Bradford, is that these online activists are willing to mobilise, to vote, and to volunteer.

‘Tweet the vote’ is becoming less of a gimmick by the day, and any party that can make an online supporter into an offline activist, even if only temporarily, can increase their share at the ballot box dramatically.

Virtual support is transforming what it means to belong to a party. The parties must get used to that, as it might soon be all they have. 

‘Tweet the vote’ is becoming less of a gimmick by the day. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.