2 July 2024

Labour’s TikTok memes are chasing the wrong voters


It’s midnight, you’re under 30 and trapped in a TikTok spiral. It started as a quick five-minute scroll before bed and now 45 minutes later you’re still glued to your screen. Just a few weeks ago, this scenario would have had you watching some pretty standard TikTok content – a couple of B-list celebs from your favourite Netflix show dancing, an endorsement from a dermatologist about why THIS is the best skincare regime, or the latest crime conspiracy from an amateur sleuth. But now you’ve got a whole new type of content flooding your feed. 

Political TikTok is in overdrive. The general election has seen parties scramble to produce vast amounts of social media content targeted at younger voters. 

Reform has seen an upsurge in content and engagement on TikTok in the last few weeks, finding a fanbase among so called ‘zoomers’. The Labour Party too has seized the initiative and turned meme culture into a new kind of attack ad. Targeting Rishi Sunak’s national service plan, the content pushed out within hours of the policy being announced was not just simple but very engaging. 

The impact was clear, even with an audience that isn’t so attuned with day-to-day politics. On a quick trip home to Leicestershire for a friend’s birthday, I found that people jumped at the opportunity to talk about national service and the meme videos they’d seen on TikTok. These are younger people who aren’t usually all that interested in politics talking about politics – I was loving it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Labour are good at this. The digital whizz behind this content is Abby Tomlinson, inventor of the Milifandom, a 2015 viral election sensation that turned Ed Miliband into a cult teen-heartthrob – a pretty incredible achievement, and perhaps the start of the meme-ification of British politics. 

It’s a strategy that has shown signs of success elsewhere. In the last US Presidential elections, the Biden campaign leant in on influencer and content creators to push their message out to a wider and younger audience via social media. Although how much was down to the impact of social media is up for debate, the youth turnout to vote saw a sizeable increase: to 50% in 2020 versus 43.4% in 2016.

But while viral moments are one thing, having a well-thought-out content strategy is another. 

Viral memes are wide reaching but not particularly deep in meaning. Users engage with the content, but is that enough to get them to the ballot box on polling day? Probably not. Rather than having a strategy to develop its audience into voters, Labour may have just produced more memes. 

It’s an easy mistake to make. Often social media teams are focused on driving online engagement, something that’s easily measurable by the number of likes, shares and comments a post receives. What’s a lot harder to measure is the impact that has on turning an engaged user into a customer or, in this case, a voter. As a result, this vital step receives far too little attention.

An even bigger error is the focus on TikTok as a social media platform. TikTok might be where the latest trends start and the preferred platform of today’s social-media-savvy youth but it’s not where the electorate are. The digital battleground is on Facebook – that antiquated platform that no one under 30 now touches. That’s where the over-55s are, or to put it more simply, the people who vote.

Centre for Policy Studies data has shown that over-55s, the so-called grey vote, are the majority of voters in 331 constituencies at this election. It’s this group who will likely decide the outcome of the election. Hence the Conservatives’ laser-like focus on retaining the elderly vote and prioritising benefits for older voters, while leaving younger workers to foot the bill. Any social media campaign that ignores this pool of guaranteed voters in the hopes of drawing upon a wave of first-time voters is risky if not plain foolish. In 2019, 47% of 18 to 24-year‑olds cast their vote, compared to 74% of over-65s.

Labour are trying to compensate by spending vast amounts on paid advertising. But it is Reform, whose focus has been on organic engagements on Facebook, that seems to be having the biggest impact. Recent analysis shows Reform getting more engagement on Facebook than Labour and the Conservatives combined. They are hoovering up grey voters, not with spicy memes but with clear, simple messaging.

On Nigel Farage’s Facebook page, he got 36,000 likes on a post of him having a pint at the England game. A picture of Keir Starmer and his wife at a Taylor Swift concert has just 8,000.

So while Labour is winning the TikTok battle, it may be losing the social media war to Reform, certainly if the hordes of fans attending Reform rallies is anything to go by. Social media’s impact shouldn’t be overestimated in comparison to the work of volunteers on the ground knocking on doors and building in-person relationships with voters. It wasn’t so long ago a certain Labour leader attracted huge crowds only to fall short at the ballot box. But Labour’s youth-focused social media content has left a gap for Reform to exploit to its advantage.

We used to say Twitter is not real life – the same goes for TikTok.

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Josh Coupland is digital and communications manager at the Centre for Policy Studies.