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The Battle to be New Prime Minister Will be Fought and Won Online

Ian Lucas explains how the Conservative Party leadership contenders will use the online space to drum up support – with a warning for the safety of our democracy

The Conservative Party’s ‘factcheckuk’ Twitter account was accused of misleading voters at the last general election. Photo: BBC Newsnight

The Battle to be New Prime MinisterWill be Fought and Won Online

Ian Lucas explains how the Conservative Party leadership contenders will use the online space to drum up support – with a warning for the safety of our democracy

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The rules for choosing our next Prime Minister are governed by the internal procedures of the Conservative Party. Little surprise, then, that they are outdated and open to abuse on an unprecedented scale – not least by the fact that the massive impact of online political campaigning will be one of the primary influences on the result.

The principal rules for the election of the Conservative Party leader were established in 1998 – before the era of widespread internet campaigning.

It follows a two-stage process. First, MPs vote in a series of run-offs, reducing the final candidates to a choice of two. Secondly, the two candidates compete in a one-member, one-vote ballot of Conservative Party members.

The rules have, in essence, remained the same since 1998. It is difficult to contemplate the scale of change in political campaigning that has happened since then.

The Rise of Online Campaigning

As an MP between 2001 and 2019, I saw first-hand the transformation in political campaigning around the time of the 2015 General Election. This was the first poll when the online sphere first began to hold the sway that it now holds on political campaigns and referendums.

Social media feels ubiquitous now, but Facebook was not created until 2004. Twitter was founded in 2006.

In 2015, as in all elections before and since, there were strict rules governing broadcast political advertising which would have prevented all the Conservative leadership campaign films – those which have dominated debate in the last few days – from being seen.

No such rules exist online, hence why these films have proliferated on our social media feeds.

In stage one, the crucial influence is on MPs. But the rise of online campaigning means that the membership, and even the wider public, can exert pressure on MPs during the preliminary stages.

I recall how, as a Labour MP in 2015, my nomination rights were vital to any leadership candidate. I came under immediate, unprecedented pressure online to support Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination. The direct, fast communication of social media puts all MPs under pressure from members and activists to allow the members to choose who they wish as leader.

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It is a difficult pressure to resist. I did not succumb to the pressure so but some of my colleagues did – in the last few minutes on nomination day. This enabled Corbyn to secure a place in the one-member, one-vote ballot of Labour Party members and the course of Labour Party history, and British history changed.

In the next hours and days, the same pressure will be applied to Conservative MPs. Party members and activists will have already contacted their own MPs, and the broader parliamentary Conservative Party, nominating their choices for leadership. Unlike in the Labour Party, the MPs will then vote, in a secret ballot, to support particular candidates, excluding some from the final run-off of Party members.

There will then be a firestorm of social media activity, with MPs the direct target. Unlike the last two leadership campaigns in 2016 and 2019, the outcome is widely seen to be unpredictable and this shortlisting is for the highest stakes in British politics.

When the final two candidates are shortlisted the campaign moves to a new, equally disturbing phase. Again, the parallel with Corbyn’s election is instructive. He had little support in the Parliamentary Labour Party and would have had no chance of winning a ballot amongst MPs. However, in a vote of Labour members, the position was entirely different. 

Political activists are, for the most part, avid users of social media. Digital platforms have an extraordinary capacity to enable like-minded individuals to meet, communicate and strengthen each other’s opinions. The influence of Momentum within the Labour Party in the 2016 leadership campaign is a classic example of this. The increased influence of parallel groups such as the European Reform Group within the Conservative Party shows that the influence extends across the political parties.


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An Aggressive Campaign

The second stage of the Conservative leadership campaign, when two polarised candidates may be competing to be Prime Minister, is likely to be the most aggressive, antagonistic and extreme of any political campaign to date – surpassing even the EU Referendum.

Conservative Party members will be targeted individually by rivals, desperate for every vote, delivering messages that will be tailored to meet their wishes and dreams. The temptation for the two candidates to outbid each other in their messages will be difficult to resist.

We saw in referendums in Scotland in 2014 and in the 2016 EU membership referendum just how social media campaigns divide electorates and how disinformation prospers on social media platforms. 

Online is where the campaign to be the next Prime Minister will be won and lost. A rule change from the 1922 Committee tells us just how important social media will be. In the 2019 leadership campaign, the spending limit for candidates was £150,000. Yesterday, it was announced that the 2022 spending limit for candidates will be £300,000.

I have no doubt that the vast bulk of that money will be spent online.

When this latest battle for power is over, all political parties need to wake up to how online political campaigning has transformed the world in which they operate.

It now builds polarisation, confrontation and division, within political parties and across society as a whole. The aggression and extremism which now dominates our politics are fed by social media campaigns which build silos of prejudice.

The result is that we end up with polarising leaders, dividing our country further. In the interests of our democracy, this must change.

Ian Lucas’ book, ‘Digital Gangsters: The Inside Story of How Greed, Lies and Technology Broke Democracy’, is published by Byline Books

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