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18 April 2013

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.

By jamie Bartlett

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.)  

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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.

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‘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.