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Labour can never win on TikTok

The party is at risk of losing its once-central cult of personality.

By Ella Dorn

For at least a decade, social media has played host to a particular stylistic affectation – we might call it “Brits online”. To be a Brit online is to perform a sort of relatable, makeshift crapness – the recreated inner world of a GCSE student on a rainy geography trip, or of someone curing a hangover at Greggs. On the open plain of the English-language internet, which springs from America’s flashy and ahistorical Silicon Valley, one must set themselves apart. Now we are in the midst of the first TikTok election, and the warring parties have fallen into the clutches of the very British meme.

When it isn’t vlogging from the battle bus (Brits on tour!) the @uklabour TikTok account communicates by way of the British meme. There is the ‘What a sad little life, Jane’ monologue from Come Dine With Me, except it has been reoriented to attack the Tories; there is Cilla Black in the 1980s doing Surprise Surprise (“POV”, goes the caption, “Rishi Sunak turning up on your 18th birthday to send you to war”). The Daily Mirror’s original Liz Truss lettuce, which made a campy digital spectacle out of a public servant’s incompetence, was peak Brits-online. In pulling a late reproduction from the battle bus fridge, Angela Rayner signals her quirky allegiance to the Brits-online cause.

Because of its played-up regionalisms and its embrace of roaming anecdotage, the Brits-online style lends itself well to the geographical survey – the travel book, the road movie. It finds its literary predecessor in the novelty Crap Towns series, with its purportedly-homegrown mockery of crumbling infrastructure and underfunded public services. It takes as its patron saints the down-on-their-luck Peep Show protagonists, who wander around making dull theatre from the inadequate. This sitcom always comes off as most British when its main characters leave Croydon and take their wry gaze to the road. Mark and Jeremy are like anti-Kerouacs, swapping freedom for disappointment and the sweeping American highway for the jammed country lane.

As a real life extension of this, we have the Labour battle bus. Rayner broadcasts her misadventures from the hinterlands of Britain in quirky, comedic bites. The party’s TikTok strategy isn’t what you would expect from a strong government-in-waiting, ready to represent us on the international stage. There are, for example, no daytime TV references, or lettuce effigies, at the G7. By embracing the meme wasteland, they run the risk of getting lost in it, to the detriment of their ideological principles and the public personae. Call this the Spinal Tapification of electoral strategy.

Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap, the 1984 mockumentary about English rockers on tour, is the spiritual ancestor of @uklabour’s TikTok. Spinal Tap – a made-up band which resemble Iron Maiden – are Brits abroad in anonymous middle America, a pre-internet analogue of Brits online. Like TikTok it reduces real culture to a series of images that stand vaguely for some nation and zeitgeist – the mullet sported by the rockstar, the thick accents, the out-of-placeness Brits feel on the American open road. No individual character emerges or looms large in our memory of the film.

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Thanks to the TikTok we are seeing a parallel emerge in politics. “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” was an effective meme – as an individual he was recognisable, came bearing his own cultural hinterland and scene. Blair, too, was the centrifugal force in New Labour. But serious human emblems cannot thrive on TikTok, where believing in yourself is a crime. Keir Starmer may come with all the generic markers of a left-wing leader – passion for the local team, the legal background, the dad in the trades – but these traits refuse to calcify into a single, solid persona on the internet.

He slots into the TikTok zeitgeist because TikTok, as the high-powered, hyper-speed descendant of Twitter and Tumblr, makes a product of instant style, not of character development or of sequential logic. While critics accuse Starmer of diluting his predecessor’s radical politics, the biggest post-election hit will really be to the party’s once-central cult of personality.

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