Helpful as they are, there is a limit to what can be achieved politically with your mobile phone. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Twitter politics is no substitute for ideas and strong campaigns

There is good reason to suspect that much of the energy spent on online campaigning is wasted entrenching divisions or preaching aggressively to an already zealous choir.

The digital revolution has disrupted old ways of doing business in every sector of the economy, every profession and every workplace. Politics is no exception, although the impact of new technology has not been as instantly alarming in parliament as it was, for example, in the music and film industries, where analogue business models collapsed. The effect on politics of millions of citizens conducting much of their day-to-day lives online has been more subtle but that does not make it less profound.

One change is that the internet creates a new terrain where political battles can be won or lost. This trend was in evidence at the last general election but since then social media networks – chief among them Facebook and Twitter – have penetrated deeper into society and become a ubiquitous feature of journalism. However, it is worth noting that, despite much breathless chatter about an internet election in 2010, it was the rather more established medium of television that had the larger impact on the campaign, because of the live debates between the three main party leaders. The same could easily be true in 2015.

A culture change to be celebrated is the effectiveness of new media at amplifying originality and exposing the sham of robotic message discipline. MPs who fire off identikit tweets with the “line to take” look ridiculous, while those who have the self-confidence to express themselves in their own voice come across well. It is an environment where authenticity flourishes and mindless artifice fails. Perhaps a result of that process will be a change in the way parties think about their communications strategies – moving away from dependency on the monolithic soundbite and rehabilitating the use of English as people speak it.

There are hazards, too. A political cycle that already seemed breathless at the pace of the rolling television news channels has become frenetic, sometimes to the point of hysteria. Perspective is often a casualty.

A case in point was last month’s Budget or, more specifically, the ill-advised online poster launched in its aftermath by the Conservatives, celebrating cuts in bingo and beer duty as helping “hard-working people do more of the things they enjoy”. The patronising tone, made excruciating by the third-person pronoun “they” (implying that “we” Conservatives amuse ourselves differently), earned the poster instant ridicule. It reinforced a caricature of haughty Tories and provoked uncomfortable questions for the Chancellor the following day when he would much rather have been enjoying the positive coverage of his newly announced pension reforms. It was, in other words, a news event in Westminster – but one that hindsight proves to have been insubstantial. Labour “won Twitter” on the afternoon of the Budget, which is no consolation for having lost the debate in the chamber and lost ground in opinion polls in the ensuing days.

There is good reason to suspect that much of the energy spent on online campaigning is wasted entrenching divisions or preaching aggressively to an already zealous choir. Strategists in the main parties appear to have reached that conclusion and increasingly focus their digital efforts on web pages that harvest email addresses and other data from potential supporters with a view to converting them to practical activism. The real value of a digital campaign lies in its capacity to mobilise people in the analogue world. The same applies to online lobbying, petition-signing and protest. So-called clicktivism can be effective as a method for raising awareness but it risks breeding complacency by generating a narcissistic hit of instant moral gratification. Ultimately there is a limit to what can be achieved in politics, as in journalism, by sitting in an office and staring at a computer screen.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Rex Features
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage