Stephen Bush: “Our political discourse happens in an arena we don’t regulate, don’t control, and where the business model is cat pictures.”

Part IV: What does social media mean for the future of political campaigning?

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. The second part covered what Labour’s centre-left can learn from the new media landscape, and the third part covered how social media has affected election campaigning and the future for two-party politics.

This final part covers social media’s likely effect on the next Tory leadership election and its overall impact on the volatility of our politics, as well as Stephen’s final thoughts on the outlook for Labour’s centre-left. The following transcript has had minor edits for length and clarity.

TYRON (TW): It’s interesting that you bring up that Labour had the populist left revolution within its own ranks, rather than as an external force like most other European social democratic parties. The interesting scenario that I wonder if we may see now is whether the Brexit Party might prevent a similar internal revolution happening within the Tory Party, pulling away members ahead of its seemingly inevitable leadership election later this year. Do you think it’s likely to pull away enough hardcore Brexiteers to change the result, or is it likely well entrenched enough anyway in the Tory membership ranks?

STEPHEN (SKB): I think the crucial thing about the Conservative Party’s leadership election is that MPs shape the shortlist. As they narrow it to a final two, whoever wins would be able to appoint a cabinet solely drawn from their backers among Tory MPs. They won’t necessarily do that, but they could, and that limits revolution. The other important thing is there is no way for a political party to prevent you from double dipping. There will be people who are members of the Brexit Party who still maintain Conservative membership, and there will be people who vote for the Brexit Party but aren’t members, but who are members of the Conservative Party.

I think the central question in the Conservative leadership election is not “which type of Brexit do you support”, it’s “have we left?” And if we have, does that fact allow Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid, or whoever emerges on the more establishment side of the contest, the credibility to do the pivot of “look, I don’t like the Withdrawal Agreement either, but it’s time to win the next general election. And I, not Raab, Johnson, Mordaunt or whoever emerges from the other side, can do that”.

TW: Which is very dependent on a lot of other variables and where we are by the time that contest happens.

SKB: Yes. And to answer the overriding points – the reason an internal revolution has happened in Labour, but won’t in the Tories, is the same. Why has the populist left in this country manifested within the mainstream party and not outside of it, as in Europe? Well, because of our electoral rules that favour two parties. Why is there not a Tory Momentum? Because the Conservative Party has the rule, and I think is unlikely to surrender, that the present Prime Minister has the right to go “oh, you’ve voted to deselect Dominic Grieve – well, sorry, no you haven’t”. That obviously has an impact.

TW: Interesting. I suppose another reason there hasn’t been a Tory Momentum goes back to your general view that social media probably really hasn’t changed all that much in terms of opinions. In terms of organisation, it’s made getting messaging out a lot more of a direct chain, and much easier. It hasn’t really done much in terms of improving whipping operations or shift opinions. You’ve kind of almost seen a Dylan goes electric moment with things like Momentum’s line against anti-Semitism, where you saw some #JC9-type members leaving in protest. A bit like the ERG anyway.

SKB: I think that the major change of social media is a loss of control. It has not made it easier for a new grouping to exert control. It just means – and I’m going to use a football metaphor, which I really need to wean myself off – it’s a little bit like the liberalisation of the offside rule. The liberalisation of the offside rule doesn’t make it easier for anyone to keep clean sheets. But it did change the way everyone attacked. That changed the shape, type and style of footballers who were playing in attacking roles. Similarly, social media has changed everyone’s ability to control the political debate.

TW: It’s made it easier for new groups to come up.

SKB: It’s made it easier for new entrants, but it doesn’t actually impose new forms of control – it has just broken down old ones.

Now of course, that all comes with the major proviso that we have a situation where a lot of our political discourse happens in an arena that we don’t regulate, don’t control, have very little influence over at a governmental level. Crucially, its business model is cat pictures.

TW: And Jordan Peterson pickup line videos.

SKB: Yeah. Ultimately, the impact of what Facebook and Google turn up and down to get the cat pictures to make them more money, and for people not to leave the walled garden – if it turns out that that tweak suddenly means bam, a bunch of people have or haven’t seen Jeremy Corbyn’s message, some bloke in Silicon Valley does not care. And that is the one place control has moved to in the whole thing. There’s a whole interesting other question to be had, about the extent to which the Royal Charter – which limits the BBC and its interactions with power…

TW: If that could change anything with the tech giants.

SKB: You now have a situation in which politics is increasingly going to be discussed on these platforms. That means political impacts are going to be shaped by decisions made by owners who are putting shareholder value and their bottom lines first. Any political impacts those tweaks have will only really have a cursory effect at best on those things.

TW: So we’re in a potentially much more volatile landscape. It’s easy to think of how many different trends in the past sprang up because people figured out how to game tech giant algorithms that were then just suddenly switched. Ten years ago George W Bush was the first result if you Googled ‘miserable failure’ because it was easy for a lot of people to drive something up the page rankings until Google just changed how that worked one day. There’ll be a lot of organisational tricks campaign staff know currently for promoting stuff on social media that could just become redundant overnight.

Which brings us back to organisation. We did touch on this earlier in terms of arguing again from first principles, but if there were one organisational thing you would recommend for the centre-left to start doing online tomorrow, what would it be?

SKB: So I’m going to cheat. I’m going to pick something which is actually offline.

TW: Oh, go on then.

SKB: So the advantage that Momentum has, is that it has the institutional support of an established legacy institution, but also the reactive nimbleness of a start-up – including, managing to use the talents of the people they have on hand. The incredibly successful actors who have done videos for them, the film directors who have taken it on, so on and so forth. Whereas it feels to me that the Labour Party as a whole, and the centre-left within the party, still have this tendency to go, “Oh, some award-winning filmmaker! Brilliant! Yeah, we can get them to send some leaflets.”

You can get away with not getting that much out of your human capital when you’re established and in charge. When you’re not in charge, when you’re in internal opposition, the one thing you absolutely can’t do is go, “who’s going to staff my leadership campaign? People who lost the 2015 election. Who’s going to staff my referendum campaign? Oh, people who lost the 2015 Labour leadership election. Oh, who’s going to staff my 2016 leadership bid?-“.

You can’t have that kind of familial faith. You have got to realise those marginal gains of getting the best out of your human capital.

TW: So, make better use of people who are already onside, rather than getting them to leaflet and bitch on Twitter?

SKB: Yeah.

TW: That…gives you a lot of hope. And do you think, finally, that the centre-left is in a position where it has the human capital and ideas to successfully do that?

SKB: I was about to say ideas never die, but I just remembered that, actually, plenty of civilisations end up wiped away. I mean, we should never forget that from 400AD to basically the mid-Elizabethan era, no-one in the United Kingdom flushed a toilet. Then, it became all the rage. Sometimes there are just complete sea changes.

But ultimately, it’s only if your ideas cease to have any relevance that there is no way back. If your ideas retain some kind of relevance, then there is always a way back for a revival…even if it’s hard to see there’s always a route back.

TW: So it sounds like there is potentially a route back. However, so long as the debate within the Labour Party is so governed by austerity and public spending, it feels as if the centre-left is probably in a bit of a losing game against the left wing of the Labour Party. They can’t easily outbid £250 billion worth of spending.

SKB: Equally, what’s wrong with McDonnell’s fiscal rule that means it couldn’t be adopted to take it off the table? There are plenty of people whose objection is that they think McDonnell doesn’t really mean it, but when you talk to Corbynsceptics, there aren’t many who think there’s much wrong with the rule itself. Why wouldn’t they keep it? In an odd way, I think that it feels unlikely that the next Labour leadership election will be about spending. I could be wrong, but I think it’s unlikely.

TW: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, Stephen.