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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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