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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Michael Heseltine calls for “second referendum or general election” on the Brexit deal

The Tory peer and former deputy prime minister accuses Theresa May of having “flip-flopped” on the “intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership”.

The Conservative party is deeply divided on the subject of Europe, and I don't see a short-term resolution to that position. I just reread the speech that the Prime Minister made to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers before the referendum. It was thoughtful, careful, balanced, and highly persuasive – arguing that we should remain in Europe.

A few weeks later, Brexit is Brexit. She has apparently changed her mind, and people like me have not. The idea that the intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership on this subject can be flip-flopped is asking too much of those of us who believe that our self-interest as a nation is inextricably interwoven with our European allies.

I believe that this is the worst peacetime decision that Parliament has been asked to make. It is very possible, as the negotiations unfold, that members of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons who believe as strongly as I do in the Remain argument will feel that their commitment to our national self-interest is being stretched unacceptably.

I know all the lonelinesses of their position. I'm well aware of the herd instinct of party politics. Only on two significant occasions have I worked to change the official policies of the Conservative party. I have no regrets, it didn't actually do me any harm. They have to evaluate the nature of the decision they're being asked to take.

I don't believe any of the arguments that there's a two-year time scale, the guillotine comes down. If there's a will to change within the community of European leaders, change will happen regardless of the letter of the law.

I believe that there needs to be a second referendum or a mandate of a general election. I believe the sovereignty of this country is enshrined in the House of Commons, and that they must be involved in the final decision with absolute power to determine the outcome. It took Nicola Sturgeon a matter of months to be back on the trail of a second referendum and Nigel Farage would have been doing exactly the same if he had lost. So what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I cast myself in the unlikely role of gander.

[May’s opposition to a Scottish referendum] completely undermines the whole basis for supporting the referendum judgement in the first place, because they weren't in possession of the facts, and so when we are in possession of the facts, it follows there must be a second choice.

Michael Heseltine is a Conservative peer and a former deputy prime minister.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition