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.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.