After the unexpectedly bad result of the 2017 snap general election for the Conservative Party, everyone from political pundits to party high-ups were quick to analyse what went so wrong for the party. The party that at the announcement of the snap general election, was ahead of Labour by over 25% in some polls, and which managed to lose its majority come the election proper. There were many people to point fingers to, and everyone from local party administrations to CCHQ were under great scrutiny for ‘losing’ what should have been a landslide election for Theresa May. From an appalling manifesto to a CCHQ out of touch with the rest of the party, there were many points of failure for the Conservative Party’s campaign during the election.
It is not open to disagreement that one of these largest points was the party’s inability to stay relevant on social media.
It was a point of failure that was somewhat expected. Young people are expected to vote Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn, as if he was the pied piper, led the 18-24-year-old demographic to the polls to vote overwhelmingly Labour, 65% in fact (whilst only around 20% of 18-24 year olds voted Conservtive). But whilst young people are the most left-wing age group, they are the most complacent. In the 2015 general election, the turnout for 18-24 year olds was hovering just above 40%. And that’s only of those who were actually registered to vote. Corbyn knew that the key to the 2017 election was in the youth vote. And so, during the election cycle, he spent a lot of time with prevalent social media personalities. He most noticeably became good friends of grime artists Stormzy and JME, who together, voiced their support for Corbyn to a twitter following of just under 2 million people. The message was out: Young people, get out there and vote. And vote they did. The turnout for 18-24-year-olds in the 2017 general election was a whopping 60%. A one and a half times increase from the 2015 election: it was clear that Labour had won a decisive victory on social media, with little to no competition from the Conservatives.
In the aftermath of the election it was apparent that change was needed. Anyone who after the election still claimed that social media was irrelevant was either out of touch or in denial. Labour had Momentum, impressive celebrity endorsements, and a leader who was increasingly becoming ‘cool’ with the young electorate. The Conservatives had…? You’d be hard pressed to find a leading youth figures to endorse the Tories, even if they did support them. And comparing Twitter followers, Theresa May has at the time of writing this article 450,000 followers, whilst Jeremy Corbyn has 1.7 million. In the light of these facts, it was the duty of the Conservatives to begin stand up to Labour on their strongest front. The future of the party was at stake. And who better to lead the Tory youth movement than… young Tories? Immediately following the election, many young Conservative politicos took to social media. Grassroots support was beginning to grow behind Conservative politicians, most notably Jacob Rees Mogg, who almost overnight went from a quirky back-bencher to an Instagram celebrity. The Conservative youth saw it as their duty, using memes and social media, to propel the party to success a la Donald Trump in 2016. ‘Tory Twitter’ in all its glory, was beginning to take shape.
And if things do not change quickly, Tory Twitter could be the final nail in the coffin for any potential online presence of the Conservative party. Why?
1 – Tory Twitter isn’t a movement, it’s a clique.
If you’ve been politically active in the UK Twittersphere over the past few months, you may have seen the same names come up on twitter over and over again. Young conservative politicos who are finding their mentions ballooning and their follower size growing. This is down to an unfortunate general personality trait that seems to be widespread across Tory Twitter. They seem to want to direct attention to themselves more than they want to the ideals they stand for and ideals they stand behind. Look at a number of accounts from young conservatives, scroll down and there’s a sizeable chance you’ll see a tweet thread containing a score of twitter handles accompanied by the hashtag ‘#TeamTory’. Follow through any of these links and you will find yourself on another rather unremarkable young conservative politico’s account who is doing the exact same thing.
Now I understand that if you want to spread a message, you are going to want to have an audience to spread it to. However, is there any point in spreading a message if your audience are all going to unanimously nod in agreement? The idiom ‘preaching to the choir’ comes to mind. It’s unfortunate in that they have the right idea that a presence on social media is paramount, but you won’t be changing any minds or swaying any voters if all your followers are just as like-minded and in agreement as you. If you want to effectively challenge the opinions of those on social media, you’re going to want to make sure that your tweets and retweets are reaching those of different opinion. Which leads me onto my next point…
2 – There isn’t a reason for non-Tories to engage in Tory Twitter
I hate to break it to you, but your dank Jacob Rees-Mogg meme isn’t going to be swaying any voters anytime soon.
A fundamental flaw in Tory Twitter is that someone who isn’t a conservative won’t have any investment in what you post on your account. If all you tweets consist of how amazing the Tories are, and how Jeremy Corbyn and his band of godless commies are coming to snatch your hard earned pennies, then you’re going to contribute to the political divide and worsen the image of the party whose views you hope to represent. A fun image macro here or there won’t do too much harm, but if you really want to change minds, you first need to give them an area to said minds to speak.
From a bit of personal experience: I am an electronic musician and a DJ. I run my own Facebook page for my music and occasionally I post on it with videos and pictures of what I’m working on. Whilst I am terrible at it, I do my best to market myself and I have spent time researching into effective methods of promotion. All the articles across the web consistently point to a technique almost always guaranteed to work and to give a reason for people to follow you: audience engagement. Instead of posting that hilarious Margaret Thatcher meme, why not post a question? Invite people who are staunchly Labour to come and voice their opinions and then: challenge them. Some of my most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences on twitter have been polite debates with those who disagree with me. Providing a polite and easy way for the other side to say why YOU are wrong, and then coming back with a counter argument is the best way in planting a thought in the minds of those who disagree with you. Sure, you’ll get the odd trolls and people who are out there looking to start a twitter fight. But if you come back at them with politeness and a good point, then you are more likely to change their mind, or at least make them reflect inwards on themselves and their actions.
Steven Crowder is a good example of this. A prominent online American Conservative, he has a segment on his YouTube channel named “Change My Mind” in which he visits various college campuses and invites those who disagree with him to sit down and discuss hot-button topics in the US such as abortion, guns, and freedom of speech. Hardly anyone walks away from the discussion with their mind changed, but exposure to the other argument and breaking down that echo-chamber is a healthy practice. The least that Tory Twitter could do is invite those who they disagree with to have an opportunity to say why they disagree.
3 –We are no ‘Centipedes’
Donald Trump’s successful victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections redefined how elections could be fought and won. And it is debatable that memes were the straw on the camel’s back which secured Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Many online Trump fans, who call themselves ‘Centipedes’ (as a reference to the Knife Party song commonly associated with Trump memes), began to accredit ‘meme magic’ to Trump’s victory, and the thought that 4chan had actually managed to “meme someone into the White House” was a hilarious one. Regardless of the issues that actually got Trump elected, people saw what happened on social media and on internet forums throughout the 2016 presidential election, and many looked to replicate the magic in subsequent elections.
The only problem is that Donald Trump was the perfect circumstance for such a movement to fall behind him. The perfect combination of outlandishness, anti-establishment and brutal honesty, he was seen as the perfect candidate for many. And despite his belonging to the financial 0.1%, his capacity to constantly annoy and challenge the political class and news outlets had many see him as the man of the people. Whether he is deserving of this title is another debate, but put simply, Donald Trump was made to be a meme. He was already a caricature of a troll and so the internet found it trivial to turn him into their idol. However, you cannot copy and paste the same formula that worked for Donald Trump and expect it to work anywhere else, especially in the current political climate of the UK. Whatever your views on the Prime Minister, to convince oneself that she is anything but a member of the political establishment would be dishonesty. She unfortunately lacks the passionate grassroots support that carried Donald Trump into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But one might ask: “Well what about Jacob Rees-Mogg? What about Moggmentum?” And that is a very good point, Rees-Mogg has indeed garnered a rather sizeable grassroots following, and he was at one point almost favourite to succeed Mrs May as leader of the Conservative Party. However, consider the political climate of the US. It was clear that people were sick of the establishment.They demonstrated this by voting for Trump in the primaries over Republican big-wigs such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush, and then to further vote for him over the woman who could be seen as the pure incarnation of the political establishment: Hillary Clinton. The people of the US were clearly sick and tired of establishment politics. But in the UK, there doesn’t seem to be a huge outrage over the political establishment. Corbyn tries to argue his anti-establishment position, but he has been an MP since 1983. That’s 35 years! That’s quite a career. The closest figure in my opinion that conservatives (note the small ‘c’) have to an anti-establishment figure is Nigel Farage. And after his constant defeat in the constituency of South Thanet and the success of Brexit, he has sought to retire from UK politics. Despite a huge increase in vote share for UKIP, up to 12.6% in the 2015 general election and becoming the third biggest party by votes, the conservative British public decided to reject this anti-establishment populist party.
So how does this all relate down to Tory Twitter? If Tory politicos are looking to replicate the ‘meme magic’ that was so prevalent online during the 2016 US election, then they may be wasting their time. Point is, is that Trumps online success was attributed to an almost perfect alignment of circumstances in his favour. Unfortunately, as of right now, there isn’t really a true parallel within the Conservative party. Sure, you have the likes of Rees-Mogg, but he is hardly seeing the numbers that Donald Trump was seeing. And unlike Trump, Rees-Mogg is consistent in reassuring to everyone that he does not seek higher ambitions and that he is perfectly content as a back bencher.Whilst there has been quite a period of uncertainty since the EU referendum in 2016 for everyone, conservatives across the UK aren’t feeling that anti-establishment buzz that our cousins across the pond are. I find it very difficult to imagine Theresa May, or anyone in the party as having the same kind of potency for memes that Donald Trump did.And so, any attempt to replicate any of Trump’s successful tactics without genuine grassroots support comes off as desperate and cringe worthy. Which could in fact do more to damage the party image on social media rather than help it.
These three points are areas that Tory Twitter have to be careful they don’t fall into. There is nothing at all wrong with promoting the party to grow a sizeable online presence, however said presence needs to be open, inviting to debate and aware of its image. Saying all of this, I applaud the young conservative politicos for taking matters into their own hands. But how do we fix this from the core? Because as good as grassroots support is, the real money is with the party proper. Having the numbers is one thing, but if the Conservative Party is to mobilise a serious online presence to rival the efforts of Momentum, an effective ad-campaign, an engaged and informed audience and a large network of personalities are needed. It’s difficult to see where to start, given that there are many areas in which we need to catch up to Labour. But Tory Twitter in its current form is not the answer. We need a change of plan, a plan that involves real communication between everyday conservatives and the high ups at CCHQ. Together, the Conservatives may be able to stand a chance on social media. It might not make too much of a difference, but it may be enough to win the next election.