9 December 2015

Political leadership isn’t impossible in the age of social media

By Dylan Sharpe

Steve Richards, Chief Political Commentator at The Independent wrote a piece yesterday arguing the reverse of the above title.

He argued that ‘the way we communicate now threatens the existence of the old political parties’. To support this hypothesis he produced a couple of case studies from the previous 7 days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Steve is a respected journalist with many years’ experience on me, so I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that the premise, case studies and conclusion of this article were all very wrong.

The two events Steve employed to make his case were Shadow Cabinet meetings held by Jeremy Corbyn last week. Both ended in acrimony when, at the conclusion of the first his shadow ministers found he was writing a letter to the party; and, when during the second members learned that he had briefed a policy to the Guardian before consulting them. The speed of the Shadow Cabinet discord reaching the public, wrote Steve, was a result of social media and rolling news and there was little Corbyn could have done to prevent this.

Yet while these events were exposed by social media, they were created in the real world. Jeremy could have told his Shadow Cabinet he intended to write a letter, he could have even got their input on the text. Similarly his press people could have chosen not to leak his policy ahead of the meeting. They could have waited and seen whether there was consensus or agreed a split approach. On both these occasions it was Corbyn’s desire to conduct events through real and social media that got him into trouble.

There is no debate that social media and 24 hour rolling TV have enabled the news to reach the public much faster than it would have done back when we had to wait for the morning’s papers or evening bulletins. And, yes, this can amplify splits between MPs of the same party and other potentially embarrassing gaffes.

But the speed of social media is also a virtue for strong-willed political leaders. It is generally a lot of light and very little heat. Twitter timelines update every second and a hashtag rarely lasts longer than a few hours. Not reacting to the latest social media storm will often be more productive than jumping into action.

Here is another case study from last week.

On the morning of the Syria vote it was revealed that David Cameron had urged his backbenchers not to go through the anti-war vote lobby with Corbyn and the “terrorist sympathisers”. Twitter was outraged, rolling news produced talking heads who complained about the PM’s language and, when the debate finally arrived, MP after MP called on Cameron to apologise.

The Prime Minister did not apologise. He did, however, win the vote convincingly. The rolling news moved onto the first bombing sorties on Raqqa, and social media turned its focus to Hilary Benn’s speech and who from Labour had voted against the leader. A week on and barely anyone can remember the outrage – although I’d wager a fair few will recall Corbyn, McDonnell and the phrase “terrorist sympathisers”. The ‘media eruption’ that vexes Steve so much in his article barely lasted 24 hours of news coverage and social media chatter.

Steve concludes by suggesting it would be healthy for politicians to ‘ignore social media’. As befits someone who writes for the Independent (where the social media following far, far exceeds their paper sales – sorry, had to get that one in) he warns that MPs ‘cannot do so. Social media has become a powerful weapon in the battles’.

It has, but the battles are invariably little more than ephemera. Remember the tsunami of support for #JeSuisEd prior to the General Election, as the younger Miliband was defended for his bacon sandwich eating? Or the daily appearance of #CameronMustGo in timelines? Recall how commentators (including Steve) turned on Facebook, saw their friends and colleagues sharing Labour’s latest pronouncement while the Tories were derided for a lack of energy and concluded that Miliband and Balls were heading for Downing Street? In May the verdict on social media was clear – Labour were heading to victory. Yet the outcome was the first increased majority for a sitting government in 50 years.

Social media and rolling news haven’t made political leadership impossible. It’s almost become the defining test of political leadership. Ignoring the outcry and focussing on long-term solutions requires strong will and stronger powers of persuasion. Of course there will be occasions when genuine issues arise and are amplified on social media, but these will be the same problems that would have tested the leadership of John Major or Harold Wilson.

The inherent irony is that social media swept Jeremy Corbyn to the head of the Labour Party. It now acts as his first line of defence, as well as the place critics in his party congregate. He has allowed his political leadership to be defined by social media and, I suspect, it will fall when the keyboard warriors finally withdraw their support.

Dylan Sharpe is the Head of PR for The Sun and a former Head of Press for NO to AV and press officer for Boris Johnson. He tweets at @dylsharpe.