Suddenly, Ed Miliband became a meme. In a good way.
Show Hide image

From Nate Silver to #Milifans: welcome to the age of political fandom

Whether it’s political fanboys who geek out over polling data or teenage girls photoshopping flower crowns onto Ed Miliband’s head, digital excitement is the new electioneering frontier.

The past few days have seen what’s likely to be the biggest moment of levity in the entire 2015 general election (and if you think this thing has been dragging on, spare a thought for me and my fellow Americans, eighty-one weeks from our next general election and currently wading through hundreds of thinkpieces about the existential significance of Hillary Clinton’s order at a Mexican fast-food chain). This was the week of the #milifandom: flower crowns and earnest bewilderment, the meme-creating internet colliding with weary political journalists, passionate young people who lack the right to vote finding a voice and a platform. It was the week when the perpetually-awkward Labour leader found himself at the centre of something literally no one anticipated: people on the internet liked him – a lot. Like, a lot.

The general public learned about Ed Miliband’s burgeoning fandom in a BuzzFeed post on Tuesday. The article shed light on a new and relatively surprising surge of collective public interest in Miliband, who in recent days has managed to attract an army of teenage fans. The Milifandom appears to be made up of mostly underage girls with other popular fannish affiliations – Tom Hiddleston, Sherlock, and One Direction, to name a few. (Note that these are not the only sorts of subjects that attract fandoms and fangirls, as I’ve seen widely reported in the media; for example, there are more than 18,000 fandoms on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan fiction-hosting site, and yes, “Political RPF – UK 20th-21st c.,” stories about current or recent British political figures romantically paired nearly every way you can imagine, is one of them.)

The Milifandom is very new – no more than a week old for most – and by their own admission, it began as an ironic gesture for a lot of its members. But for others, they’ve developed a genuine interest in the leader and in Labour’s manifesto, which they celebrated fandom-style, with a flurry of tweets and hashtags and photoshopping flower crowns (a meme that’s stretched across all sorts of fandoms for the past few years) onto Miliband’s head. At the source of the Milifandom was Abby, a seventeen-year-old who at one point declined media inquiries because she was revising for her exams. But she told BuzzFeed:

We just want to change opinions so people don’t just see the media’s usual distorted portrayal of him – and actually see him for who he is. Ed is just a great guy and how many other politicians have a fandom? 0. We’re just waiting for him to acknowledge it bc it’s kinda sad when he only ever sees people write mean things about him.

Deep in my cynical, fandom-defending heart (even semi-ironic fandoms!) I was certain that this story would completely backfire – we were off to a rough start when BuzzFeed used phrases like “imagine the kind of all-consuming hormonal hysteria” to describe girls liking things, which I hear and bristle at on a regular basis. But the resulting meme-fest “CoolEdMiliband”, in which Miliband’s historically uncool face was photoshopped onto the bodies of pop culture and fannish icons (James Bond, Harry Styles, Benedict Cumberbatch) was fun – even the irony embedded in these images was gently positive, geek Miliband elevated to lovable geek Miliband. By the same token, the wholesale rejection of the “Cameronettes” movement, started by a 21-year-old male politics student who at one point pretended to be a 13-year-old girl (sounds like a charmer!) showed that you can’t fake this stuff – even before he’d revealed it to be “a joke”, literally no one wanted to join the Cameron fandom.

But the best reaction came from Miliband himself: Labour responded to what might-have-been mocking interest with grace and good faith, tweeting at Abby to welcome her to the party. On the radio, Miliband said, “I’m definitely blushing now…I certainly wouldn’t claim to be cool... I’ve never been called that.” It echoed back to the delightful story that circulated the other day, when he was taught, tried out, and abandoned the phrase YOLO in the space of a single interview question. In an election where some argue the only party leader with real “personality” is also the one constantly defending his party against charges of casual racism, this sheepish, blushing, gawky, tries-too-hard-but-we-love-him-anyway Ed Miliband was suddenly shining bright. (I was even feeling it from across the ocean. And I have been looking for a new and fresh fandom to get excited about…)

There’s something crucial at work here, though: Miliband – or, at least, the Labour Party more broadly – might be inspiring actual non-ironic passion in teens, but they won’t be able to vote for him. Abby told BuzzFeed: “I can’t have a say in what happens in my own country! And labour is why I love Ed, I’m a party member and I think they truly are the way forward. If it was up to them, I would allowed a voice.” That disconnect is interesting: we can see a palpable shift in his public perception in the past 48 hours (teen girls think this guy is cool! That makes him more cool by default? More likeable, at least) but it remains to be seen how much that will affect the voting public. We can see the new means and channels that young women (and for that matter, not-so-young women – and men! – as well) use to network with each other online, but for many of them, despite all the passion, we can’t fully see their impact.

Despite the positive-if-bemused reactions that seemed to characterise much of the media and general public’s response, classic teen-girl hate inevitably cropped up. BuzzFeed wasn’t the only news outlet to use the word “hysterical”. Some articles crept towards an extreme mocking tone. Comments sections veered, unsurprisingly, towards cess-pool territory on some sites. One reader wrote, “Are these the same teenage girls who suffer from anorexia and bulimia, routinely go hysterical over manufactured boy bands that do not include any musical instruments, and frequently self harm?” One teenager whose image was widely circulated tweeted, “So turns out people stop taking your political views seriously if your selfies with a jokey caption are in a buzzfeed article, thanks.” She continued, “It's not just that its portrays us in a bad light, it's damaging for Labour support; we know how the general public feels about teenage girls,” and wrote about how unhappy she was to be featured in the original article.

“Proof that teenage girls shouldn't be allowed to vote…” another commenter wrote, and if these girls could vote, if they could actually show up for Miliband at the ballot box, flower crowns and all, I guarantee the discourse would shift dramatically and aggressively in this direction. And really though: is a fangirl getting emotionally invested in a politician all that different than political fanboys who geek out over endless poll numbers and stats?

Much has been made of Labour’s attempts to run an American presidential-style campaign, at the heart of which lies popular appeal, even the cult of personality. The Barack Obama fandom – still going strong across social media even as his presidency draws to a close – lacks a name as catchy as Milifandom. But his fans made up the base of his supporters through both campaigns. Women, people of colour, LGBT people, a broad and inclusive group that skewed far younger than the angry old gun-toting white guys who always turn up for the Republicans: these are the people that spread the digital love for Obama, in the way they spread digital love for everything else they’re into. Accusations of vapidity ran wild: they valued style over substance. As though enthusiasm and fluency with social media invalidate the seriousness of a young person’s politics.

Anyone who’s surprised by enthusiasm teenage girls have for political issues probably hasn’t spent much time around teenage girls – and certainly doesn’t spend much time in the social media spaces teen girls occupy. Politics on Tumblr can turn into a punch line at times, but there’s no other place online as progressive and engaged: it’s a social network full of women on a mission to educate themselves and others and to collectively fight against the injustices of the world. You can spread a political message with a lecture, or you can do it with a bit of fun and a few animated gifs – or, for maximum impact, you can employ both. The language of the social web doesn’t change the substance of its ideas, no matter how foreign these posts might look to you.

It might have all just been a light-hearted joke that led to a great set of memes. Or it might be a way for young people to engage with politics, on their own terms, in their own language. It certainly gave Ed Miliband a chance to become a little more “relatable” – and a little (lot) more charmingly embarrassed that people fancy him. If social media is a democratising force, then kudos to the leader that can embrace it on its own terms – and take on all our heart-eye emojis with genuine gratitude.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496