Stephen Bush: “In an odd way, I think all of this would’ve happened anyway”

Part I: More in the country than in the party? How much of a difference the new social media landscape made for Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections and in 2017

The Social Review at the end of April had the chance to meet with Stephen Bush, the political editor of the New Statesman. Bush covered both Labour leadership elections after the party’s 2015 general election loss in great detail, and was prominent as one of the first journalists to predict Corbyn’s victory. As such, he offers an invaluable perspective as someone in the traditional media who has been at the coalface of the effects of new media on the Labour Party and UK politics.

In this first part of the transcript of our conversation, we discussed the impact of social media on Corbyn’s two winning leadership campaigns and his surprise advance in the 2017 general election. Part II, to be published on Monday, covers what Labour’s centre-left can learn from Corbyn’s success and the new media landscape for future elections. Part III, covering the forthcoming European elections and Change UK’s odds of supplanting the Lib Dems, and Part IV covering social media’s likely effects on the next Tory leadership election and future general elections, will be published next week.

The following has had minor edits for length and clarity.

TYRON (TW): A more boring interview would probably start with the Zhou Enlai quote about it being “too soon to tell” what the impact of social media is. So I’ll kind of flip it around: to what extent do you think we actually can tell at this point the influence social media has on British politics and candidates?

STEPHEN (SKB): One of my pet peeves is when people say, “oh, history will judge me”. If you read any serious historiography, historical verdicts are always provisional.

So obviously, we can have an intensely provisional verdict about the impact of social media! We know that it’s asinine to say that it has had none. I find it astonishing the number of people who believe that they have some kind of sophisticated Marxist diagnosis – “oh, it’s actually not about Facebook, it’s about a long period of wage stagnation…” – I mean, we know the printing press changed politics. We of course know that social media is a hugely consequential historical invention.

We also know that we have a growing chunk of our electorate that is retired, on a fixed pension, has paid off a mortgage, and therefore is immune to many of the political shocks that we would expect a democracy to have. That is a separate trend, though of course all of those people are on Facebook with their 56 friends or wherever the average is.

TW: Silver surfers with iPads and not much else to do.

SKB: So we know that those trends are interlinked. We know that we’ll never ever write in a thousand years – assuming all of those records survive, which given what I remember about studying things a thousand years ago, is a big if – we will never be able to say, “social media changed things by ‘X’ amount”. But we can say, “well, social media had this effect”.

But you then end up in a weird debate. To take a case in point, the anti-Corbyn video at the last election about the IRA obviously did very well in terms of eyeballs on Facebook. You can ask – in an era of five television channels, would that have just been a PPB which was discussed for a couple of weeks? How different would that be? We don’t know. But we do know one way or the other that it was different. So I think we can semi-know the impact social media has had.

TW: I suppose the big question is: what we’ve seen is social media’s influence has effectively got a party leader elected. It’s probably changed a general election result. Is that really the maximum level of influence it could have, or do we think anything much more profound is out there?

SKB: So right, there’s already been a pretty consequential impact in terms of Facebook, and how it’s changed politics, not just in this country but around the world. Although actually, I feel very certain that Facebook had a consequential impact on the 2017 election results. I’m less convinced it had a consequential impact on the outcome of the 2015 Labour leadership election.

TW: Okay. Not even in an organisational sense?

SKB: No. I think the core of it was Carmel Nolan’s joke about Corbyn’s first leadership campaign being ‘a coalition of the willing and the available.’ Those weren’t people who had met each other via Facebook or social media.

TW: They were people who’d been hanging out through Stop the War…

SKB: They were effectively people who McDonnell and Simon Fletcher were able to go “look, do me a solid, I trust you”. They really cobbled together from nothing a campaign which was able to a) convince people to lend their nomination and b) once it was on the ballot paper, sustain the wave that it found itself on. I’m less convinced that if you took away social media, that campaign wouldn’t have succeeded.

TW: In the nominations, or in winning the whole thing?

SKB: In winning the whole thing. The moment when party members fell in love with Jeremy was not on Facebook or on Twitter, or on Labour List, or on the New Statesman website, or on the Guardian. It was on the Newsnight hustings, you know, the seven o’clock one…

TW: Nuneaton?

SKB: Nuneaton. The crowd loved him, the audience loved him.

TW: “The one thing nobody’s talking about is the Iraq war.”

SKB: So despite everything I just said about how important social media is, which I completely don’t resile from: it’s really easy to forget that the most important broadcaster in the 2015 Labour leadership election, the 2016 Labour leadership election and the 2017 general election was the BBC. It was that BBC hustings, which is the moment when Corbyn introduced himself to party members, and they went “she’s a robot, he seems like he’s doing an impersonation of a left-winger, she seems really right-wing – oh, he seems different.”

In terms of the pattern of CLP nominations, the various polls conducted by various campaigns, and the two I think published by the Times, it really was that moment when he appeared on the BBC and was his most effective self, that sealed the deal. I really think everything else fell from that.

TW: Even the Welfare Bill?

SKB: The Welfare Bill has become a significant event, I think, because it is a way for various failed leadership candidates to blame Harriet Harman for their own failings. But if you look at the claim “oh, it was the welfare bill”, I had already written that first story about polling showing him ahead, and I think at that point we already had a public poll validating that story. Corbyn was already ahead in the CLP nominations. Crucially, the thing that the welfare bill changed was that it meant we moved from a situation where he was winning in the second round to one when he was winning in the first: because it detonated Andy Burnham.

But I kind of think, in an odd way, that would have happened anyway. Because in the first half of that campaign I had been ringing round talking to people about how they felt. You had basically a group of people who would say “I like Corbyn so I’m voting for him”, and a group of people saying “I like Corbyn but I’m worried that one of Liz or Yvette will win, so I’m going to vote for Andy Burnham because he’s the most left-wing candidate who can stop it”. What I think was always going to happen is that, when it became clear that you could vote for Corbyn and he could win, then the undertow for Andy Burnham of people saying “my heart is with Corbyn but my head is with the most left-wing candidate who can win” was always going to stop.

All that really happened in the final stage of that campaign were two events everyone talks up. The Welfare Bill – a bunch of second preferences became first preferences, which meant Corbyn won on the first round, not the second. And the Cooper surge – a bunch of people who were going to first preference Liz Kendall somehow convinced themselves they could stop Corbyn by voting for Yvette Cooper. And actually, neither of those events were significant at all. They just gave people something to write about.

TW: So in terms of the organisational effect of social media, in terms of networks built up – Red Labour, the People’s Assembly events, all those, which many would argue had been accentuated by Facebook and social media. Do you think they were just something that swelled Corbyn’s victory from a second round win anyway to something that was a complete crushing victory, rather than anything that actually really made a difference?

SKB: Yeah. I would say that very confidently as far as 2015 goes. I think the interesting counterfactual is, given that we all know that there was a majority on the NEC to hold him off the ballot paper – would those people in an era before social media, without the eyes of the world on those 33 people, would they have gone “actually, yeah, let’s kill it in darkness”?

TW: In terms of what can be learned, it sounds like your diagnosis is that we actually still live in a fairly conventional environment? Social media has accentuated things, made things a bit more shouty, but underlying it all the same opinions would broadly be there.

SKB: I think where it becomes significant is when you move from party electorates, which are just weird for a number of reasons, to general electorates. Corbyn is in many ways the perfect mirror image of it. What was his strongest area in the general election? London. What was his weakest area in the membership (though very strong anyway)? London. What was his weakest area in the membership in terms of age? It was ironically people we think of as first time voters. But of course that was his strongest age group in the general election.

It’s just so different that the comparison is completely useless, and actually obscures more than it informs. But when you get to the wider electorate, that information can be disseminated much more quickly and there aren’t barriers to entry meant in the 2017 election the Right’s historical advantage of a dominant right-wing press amplified by the BBC was disrupted. You had a situation where you have social media and a right-wing press, both amplified by the BBC.

TW: Stuff like fox hunting was more important than it would have been otherwise.

SKB: Exactly. I think the open question, and one of the things that is particularly difficult for us politicos to absorb, is that people have this idea of us in the UK as a hugely consequential nation. From Facebook’s perspective all of the choices they make about politics are about a different regulatory arrangement, and how they affect the UK.

TW: “Oh, you’re still following GDPR on the side?”

SKB: Yeah. “Has England left Europe yet?” I mean, it’s that kind of level of engagement. But it was obviously consequential in the 2017 election, and was consequential in terms of organising.

The information Facebook releases to us is a bit incomplete and perhaps not as accurate as we would like. But incomplete and inaccurate information is better than speculation. And all of the evidence shows that actually, it was in the general election that Momentum’s brilliant videos, the Evolve Politics fox hunting stuff started to become significant. There is no real evidence that those things were significant in the leadership election. Other than, of course, the really important thing – by the time of the general election, the Labour leadership and its support network had fought and won two elections.

TW: They had had a test run. It’s interesting that you bring up that mirror image point of the party electorate not being very representative of the general electorate, but actually those two leadership elections turned out to be quite good test runs.

SKB: I think in many ways it’s a bit like what Euro elections used to provide the national parties. Obviously the people who turn out at European elections are…

TW: Weird.

SKB: Are weird, yeah. They are odd events. In terms of their outcomes, they can tell us quite little, other than where a party is particularly strong.

TW: But they’re good for test driving.

SKB: They’re good for test driving – “oh, we’ve got to fight a genuinely national election.” So if you think about Ed in 2014, the thing it exposed was that his team were not able to adequately brief and prepare him to go “This morning you’re in Swindon talking about cuts”.

TW: “Here’s who the local council leader is.”

SKB: It provided a stress test for that level of breadth. And in the same way, the party membership leadership election does at least give you a test of, for example, how quickly can you get sign off on content from the leader through to it appearing on social media. You know, can you move your candidate around eight different venues and still feed them?

TW: Yeah, it’s like a process. Practice in terms of…actually making sure that you’re not getting to the end of the day and calling someone a bigot.

SKB: Yeah, exactly.

Part 2 of the interview with Stephen Bush on what Labour’s centre-left can learn from the new media landscape, Corbyn’s successes and Plaid Cymru will be published on Monday.

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