Part III: Is two party politics back again or dead again? The effect of social media on general and local election campaigns, and the future for Change UK and the Lib Dems

The first part of our interview with New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush on how social media has changed the political landscape covered the effects it had on the Labour leadership elections, with the second part covering what Labour’s centre-left can learn from the new media landscape. In part three, we discuss how social media has changed general and local election campaigning, and what the future holds for two-party politics and the fortunes of Change UK and the Lib Dems. The following transcript has had minor edits for length and clarity.

TYRON (TW): It sounds like you think of social media as more akin to the new TV. It broadcasts the stuff that is there a lot more effectively and disseminates it more quickly, but it doesn’t do much to change minds outside of that.

STEPHEN (SKB): The big difference that social media has made is how parties deal with rows. Take fox hunting in 2017. Were Labour’s attacks quantitatively different from ‘vote Labour or the fox gets it’ in 2001 or 2005? No. Each time it spoke to a fear people have about the Tories that they are weird, posh and enjoy excessive cruelty.

The big difference of course is that the 2005 election was the last general election fought before iPlayer was a widespread invention. Back then, parties could semi-control what the conversation was about and when, with party political broadcasts and only five channels. The difference in 2017 is you can’t control any more how far it spreads. May tried to do the same thing as Cameron on fox hunting in a very cloven-hoofed way, of saying she wouldn’t vote for fox hunting but offering a free vote on it.

TW: You trust that less when someone looks headed for 400 seats than you do when they look headed for 300.

SKB: Pre-social media, Cameron could effectively do a controlled explosion announcing that on Sky News, and the Countryside Alliance volunteer army would go “okay, you’re my guy”. May couldn’t do that without it spreading like wildfire.

You could see it too with Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 campaign. A lot of the anti-Sadiq campaign was not distributed at a level where it would have even likely come to light in the 2004 mayoral election. A local party sends a dog-whistle leaflet to everyone with a Hindu-sounding surname. In practice, if you get that wrong in 2004, a socially liberal Hindu voter goes “what the hell is this?”. If they know a journalist there’s maybe a one-day story about it.

In 2016 every single person who was sent that leaflet and didn’t agree with it shared it, and a bunch of people who would never have seen it saw it and got very angry. In 2004 those leaflets would have annoyed a couple of people, and Zac would have wandered around the city going “I hate Heathrow! I’m into pedestrianisation! I’m very attractive!” You would have had a very different contest, if not outcome.

TW: I was about to ask if you think 2016 would have gone the other way in a non-social media world.

SKB: It definitely had the potential, right? The weirdness of 2016 is that it was the last pre-Brexit electoral contest in London. We know Brexit has reworked voting intentions across the whole country. You go to having a Labour MP in Kensington and a Conservative MP in Walsall North. In terms of being able to win and hold power as a Conservative in London it’s quite a big deal.

It still would’ve been hard to win a third term against the general desire for change, but I think Zac would have had a fighting chance pre-social media. But he lost in a landslide and he revolted enough of his own voters that…I mean, we forget that in 2016, the Liberal Democrats in Richmond were dead. They’d all been eradicated at a local level. Gentrification and the unwinding of previous Lib Dem MP Susan Kramer’s incumbency meant by 2015, that was a 26,000-majority safe seat for the Tories. But I remember I first going out on doors in the by-election after that mayoral election, and thinking. “Oh, wow. That mayoral election really turned a bunch of people against him”.

TW: One thing it reminds me of was the similar cynical targeted mailouts the Tories in Harrow East sent to local Hindus in the 2015 general election, against the Tamil Labour candidate Uma Kumaran. In retrospect it seems like trial run: “Bob Blackman says he’ll fight against legislation forbidding discrimination against Dalits [the Hindu ‘untouchable’ caste]. Labour’s going to take away your cultural heritage.” But it didn’t get as much media traction as you’d hope, because there was a national contest going on. What it got me to thinking for future elections – does the social media hubbub mean there’ll likely be too much going on in nationalised contests, and more local stuff can slip under the radar?

SKB: Yeah, you can always get away with more down-ticket during a general election. So let’s take this current set of local elections. There are loads of reasons why the Tories are going to have a bad night. One of them is that these are seats that were last fought when David Cameron was winning a general election by six points. The question last time was “Do I want David Cameron, or do I want Ed Miliband? Okay. Right, three votes. ‘Conservative, Conservative, Conservative’.” It’s very different to a situation now where they go, “Oh, I like the local Lib Dem council candidate, I haven’t heard from Tim ‘nice-but-dim’ in a while, and it’s either them or the Tory candidate…Lib Dem Lib Dem Lib Dem” – or Labour. It’s just a very different dynamic without a top race getting more attention.

All things being equal, the party we’d expect to be ending the locals with the biggest spring in their step is the Lib Dems. They got absolutely turned over in 2015. They are significantly more popular than they were back then.

TW: Really?

SKB: Yeah, I mean, back then they got 8% of the vote.

TW: Now they’ve got 9%?

SKB: Well, but you’ve also got to ask, what are the 7% of people saying TIG/Change UK [who aren’t entering council candidates] going to do? The Lib Dems have been doing well in local elections recently – they were winning new seats in last year’s elections by taking Tory Remainers, and were also able to effectively harvest local discontent, whether it be with a particularly bad Labour administration in Sunderland, or the very public civil war in Haringey. So it feels quite likely to me that the Lib Dems will do well.

However, it probably won’t change the dynamic going into the final two weeks of the Euro elections – let’s face it, it will be the Farage Show. Broadcasters have learned literally nothing from the European referendum, and we know that pro-European campaigns have done nothing to try and disincentivise that.

TW: Do you think it will change much in terms of the Lib Dems’ forthcoming leadership election?

SKB: No. The main changeable variable for the Lib Dem leadership election is how quiet a summer it is. If it’s a quiet summer and they actually get fair amount of oxygen for it, then maybe one candidate can seize the campaign. The Lib Dem leadership contest starts out as a bit of an event fight, as it’s very hard to assess which one will do well. If I found out six months from now any of Layla Moran, Ed Davey or Jo Swinson turned the other two over and won with 60% of the vote, it’d be plausible to me for any of them.

The crucial difference is that in the last two leadership elections, there were Lib Dems who were really angry about the idea Tim Farron could win or that nobody was challenging Vince Cable. Now, you have three candidates where nobody is viscerally opposed to them. The weird thing is that, in terms of the left-right position of the Liberal Democrats, we are actually looking at three people from the left-liberal tendency. One of them [Davey] was a Cabinet minister in the coalition, one of them [Swinson] was a junior minister, one of them [Moran] wasn’t an MP – but all of them are people who would be more comfortable in a left coalition than in a right coalition.

TW: It’s going to be more about tone, who they are, what they represent.

SKB: Ironically, it’ll probably make it a more bitter contest. When it’s a more social democratic versus liberal contest, in an odd way that makes it less personal. You have an ideological row. Now it’ll be more personal – “you were in the coalition”, “you were also in the coalition but you’re trying to apologise for it”, “you’ve been around for five days”.

TW: To what extent are the Change UK negotiations likely to be a dividing line in the Lib Dem leadership election? Is it something the party is united on as a whole? “We should probably unite but we should definitely get the real estate out of that join-up”, or…

SKB: So the party is divided on it, not least because you have people of a certain age, who played this game before in the 80s, and know how to approach a merger better now. “We did this before and the things we’ve learned are X, Y and Z”.

The other tendency is looking at it ideologically. “Heidi Allen works very well with her local Lib Dems, seems like she’s aligned with us, we can look at that. Chuka Umunna? Yeah, he’s into electoral reform, moderate social democratic-ish, he’s one of us right?” But then you have people like Joan Ryan, who were No to AV and voted for every civil liberties measure under Tony Blair. So they then think “are we certain about this?” Basically, the divide is Lib Dems who would nod when you say ‘we’re in the moderate liberal centre’, and ones who would say ‘no, we’re a party of the moderate liberal left’.

The tactical argument is that it is not clear how Change UK can win alone, but it is clear how Change can cause a great deal of damage to the Lib Dems alone. Some people in Change still say, “look, the Lib Dems are a tainted brand, we need to finish them and then move on to other things”. Others take the view that it’s a waste of time and energy, it’s not clear if you can achieve it, and the Lib Dems have useful data, organisation, and councillors. One reason Vince Cable is so welcoming is that he understands full well that you end up in a death embrace under first-past-the-post. The Labour Party spent five ruinous years paving the way for a Tory majority government by denigrating the Lib Dems in the South West. So don’t underestimate the potential for the Lib Dems and Change to spend the next three years denigrating one another, on the way to a bunch of lost deposits in seats they ought to win.

TW: Which of the two do you think looks better placed to be in the driving seat post the European elections when it comes to the almost inevitable negotiations?

SKB: I think almost regardless of the results, it’s going to be the Lib Dems. Perhaps I’ve completely misread the boiling point of the stay-behind Labour MPs. But broadly, the Lib Dems have a party machinery, they have a national organisation. They are an edifice that can fight a national election. Change aren’t.

TW: Change have Heidi Allen on Newsnight and that’s about it.

SKB: Yeah, and because of the timing of these European elections, Change are not going to have another dry run to prove they have a machine that works at the national level. What’s the next test between now and 2022? There isn’t one. But even if Change do much better in these elections, that helps them a bit, but ultimately if it becomes a fight of ‘we’re going to be really spiteful to one another and just kill one another’, you’d bet on the party which has councillors rather than the one which doesn’t.

The flip side of that – and this is entirely subjective – is that I personally think Heidi Allen is one of the most impressive communicators in Westminster. Change start from a position of having a watchable centre forward. That is hard to buy and it’s something the Lib Dems don’t have.

In the SDP-Liberal talks, you had a much more organizationally watertight SDP with big, prominent people, and you had a pre-existing Liberal Party which had a popular leader in David Steel. They were broadly aligned on a lot of ideological issues, but they were coming to it with similar strengths and similar weaknesses. The fascinating thing about this set of negotiations, if they do happen, is you essentially have a mirror image in Change and the Lib Dems. Each needs what the other has. That ought to make it a more congenial set of negotiations, as they do really need one another. On the other hand, because their strengths are quite opposed to each other, that encourages and incentivises political spite.

TW: So what are the main ways that you could see Change losing out from the negotiations?

SKB: The critical thing here is that because there could be an election at any time, all of the parties are battle-ready. Labour have selected everywhere with a majority of under ten thousand. The Conservatives are not quite that advanced, but pretty close. The Lib Dems have selected everywhere that’s winnable. The difficulty for Change is – where’s left for them to go?

Is it just a case of finding a home for the 12? What about additional defectors, where will they go? Are there places where Change can do better than the Lib Dems? The Lib Dems will have likely already selected good candidates in those places. So you then have the question – and this is when I think the Euros become interesting – is the banner of Change more likely to win votes in parts of the world where the Lib Dems have always done well, or parts of the country where the Lib Dems have always somehow failed to make an impact?

TW: North London vs. the West Midlands…

SKB: In that case Change would have something else. Talking to pro-European, Cameroon Conservatives about the threat, they say, “I do worry about what Change would do if it was successful, but I already worry about a Liberal revival. It changes the name of what I worry about but it hasn’t really changed the core worry”. And at the moment, it is not proven that Change has more reach than the Lib Dems do.

TW: The big recent revelation has been the Brexit Party. There was the shocking ComRes Westminster poll that showed the Tories down to 23%. Do you think this is something that actually lasts into a general election?

SKB: There are so many unknowns. It’s easier to defect in a Euro election. We don’t know who will vote, but it seems reasonable to assume that it will be people on either end of the Brexit dividing fault. But equally, one of the many reasons Brexit is a category error is that we are a fairly typical European democracy. We have a legacy centre-right party, a nativist populist party, a party of the centre, legacy social democratic party, and a populist leftist party. The big difference is that Labour…

TW: We kind of had our own internal hostile takeover.

SKB: Yeah. Like Madonna, it had a makeover and managed to be its own popular leftist movement within its walls. But I generally assume that there will be something – maybe it won’t be to do with Brexit – that sees some kind of nativist right party at future elections with about 14%.

The big question which the Euros will go some way to answering, is that we know the answer to “who gets hurt by the new parties” but we don’t know where it hurts them. If it turns out that a new movement of the centre just bruises the egos of a bunch of Labour MPs in big cities…

TW: “Oh no, I’m back down to my majority in 2015 rather than 2017.”

SKB: Yes. But if that means Justine Greening loses to Labour in Putney, that’s quite a significant difference. Ditto, if the Brexit Party means that Patrick McLoughlin for the Tories in Derbyshire Dales suddenly only has a 5,000 majority, but some Welsh Con/Lab marginals have tipped to the Tories, that would be big. The fun thing we know we don’t know is whether the 2017 election was the first election of a new type, or if it was a weird blip.

TW: We don’t know whether two-party politics is back again or if it’s dead again. Awoouu.

The final part of our interview with Stephen Bush, looking towards the next Conservative leadership election and future general elections, will be published tomorrow.