19 July 2022

In an age of meme politics, can MPs avoid being the butt of the joke?

By Amy Price

‘I was shown a video of Liz Truss at training today. She was talking about cheese? It was like a weird dream.’

This was an unexpected anecdote from my partner of ten years. Whilst I’ve always worked in and around politics, he has largely been ambivalent to the Westminster bubble. He often glazes over when I try to relay the latest political psychodrama or parliamentary gossip.

And yet, this week his Sunday-side cricket team paused play to watch the Foreign Secretary (and would-be Prime Minister) talk about British produce.

The clip in question is from way back in 2014, and is often referred to witheringly by politicos. I’ve certainly seen it a number of times over the course of my career, so it was at least mildly amusing to see my fiancé laughing about it with his mates eight years after the original speech (‘That. Is. A. Disgrace…’ etc).

More recently, the hashtag #RishiSunak has racked up hundreds of millions of views on TikTok, thanks to an archive tape of 21-year-old Sunak saying: ‘I have friends who are upper class and friends who are working class – well…not working class.’

Another of the remaining candidates, Penny Mordaunt, also pops up on phone screens thanks to her GIF-friendly stint on ITV’s diving competition Splash.

It’s all a step on from the unflattering photo ops of the 2000s and 2010s, be it Boris Johnson dangling from a zipwire or Ed Miliband tackling a bacon sandwich.

Though to some the meme-ification of politics might seem little more than harmless fun, it’s no exaggeration to say it could sway future elections. Research suggests that a split-second judgement based purely on a candidate’s face is enough for a voter to form an opinion on them. One Princeton study suggests that people unconsciously judge the competence of an unfamiliar face within a tenth of a second.

So, what happens if that snap-judgement is based on a Snapchat?

They might not be politics addicts, but the electoral power of the average social media user should not be underestimated. While my fiancé might not care about the latest zinger from PMQs, he does vote thoughtfully at every election. Nor is this just about young people on smartphones – my 60-year-old parents are just as keen to share the latest trending content with their peers, particularly on Facebook.

Some commentators seem to revel in playing down social media politics, often with the rather trite observation that ‘Twitter isn’t Britain’. It’s certainly true that vocal online activists are rarely representative of the whole country, but this is something different: it is a new age in which even the most disengaged people can form a view of politicians whilst casually swiping through their Instagram reels.

That doesn’t mean, however, that politicians can’t use the same channels for their own purposes. Some have done a great job of building their profile and brand online. Done right, these videos can help to boost their personal brand with new audiences.

Leftwing politicians seem to be particularly adept in this regard. In 2019, Jeremy Corbyn racked up over 175m views on a range of campaign sketches produced by a team of 15 dedicated staff. More recently, while Gen-Z favourite Zarah Sultana MP has received over 5 million likes across her TikTok account.

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here, of course. Corbyn was trounced by Boris Johnson and Sultana is sat firmly on the opposition back benches. What’s more, as any social media expert will tell you, it’s incredibly difficult to manufacture a viral moment on your own terms, making it a tough space for politicians to control their own narrative. Indeed, most members of the public are liable to keep on scrolling rather than watch a a 3-minute video of Kemi Badenoch explaining her stance on the Online Harms Bill or Tom Tugendhat’s best bits from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

However, given the ever-growing influence of these channels, politicians can’t afford to ignore them. They need to be producing content that is relatable, engaging and in touch with the zeitgeist. In the meantime, online political discourse will probably remain on the fringes – right up until a faux pas is big enough and funny enough that social media algorithms propel it into the public’s consciousness.

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Amy Price is an Associate Director at Public First

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.