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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle