It’s no surprise that party politics and the digital age don’t get on. News breaks, develops and resonates faster than spin doctors can assimilate it. Anyone with anything to say can build themselves a platform at the press of a button. The age of institutionalised secrecy is constantly challenged by the digitisation of everything from correspondence to spending figures.
Yet seemingly the biggest threat posed by the internet age to political parties – and modern UK politics generally – manifests itself in 140 characters or less. Social media has the potential to be an advantageous blessing and a disastrous curse to party politics. The latter, presently, seems more prominent. Earlier this month news emerged of the suspension of Labour councillor Rosemary Healy after she unwittingly retweeted a parody of a Conservative campaign poster that featured a Nazi concentration camp.
The problem that parties face lies in the newfound individual freedom of party representatives in their official capacity. The enforcement of the ‘party line’ is increasingly complicated by the public platforms MPs and others have to speak personally, rather than as cogs in a manageable and cohesive machine. Equally, the fundamental pitfall of social media not just for politicians is its capacity for blurring the personal and professional to the detriment of those who hold culturally sensitive positions. In an age where social engagement is so fluid and homogenous, political parties practised in deft communicative streamlining have never been more vulnerable.
Nobody has felt the blow of social media freedom more keenly than Nigel Farage and UKIP. With many policies that derive from a belief in more stringent immigration control, the capacity for views of contentious politically-correct value to surface has met with rapid party growth and prominence in the Twittersphere, with the effect of radical stances on race equality becoming associated with the party, and the sacking of a number of representatives. UKIP’s chairman Steve Crowther recently warned party councillors and MEPs against having Twitter accounts with a succinct directive – “My advice: just don’t”.
The problem of streamlining is just the beginning of the detrimental capacity of social media for today’s politicians. Facebook and Twitter complement richly the adversarial politics of the UK at the cost of party and political sanctity. ‘What’s worse than four more months of David Cameron? Letting him win five more years.’ reads a primary-colour Labour campaign poster on Facebook. Yes, parties are getting a message across that helps them achieve their immediate aims. But they’re sacrificing that which permits the public to accept the offensive nature of UK politics – the sense that reciprocal belittlement is for the good of democracy. Social media, in having an exacerbating effect on adversarial politics, has a reductionist presence in UK politics itself.
How then, should parties make the most of these significant tools at their disposal? Not engaging with social media is, after all, ill-advised given the archaic reputation of UK parties and the already sizeable apathy of young Brits. The challenge that needs tackling is not how to contain party presence on social media, but how to make social media further not just the aims of parties and politicians, but politics itself.
Twitter and Facebook are, by their nature, uncontrollable – they are catalysts for excess and the controversial. The embracing of social media by politicians and parties is, ultimately, a good thing. There has never been greater capacity for political accountability. UK politics has never been more unstable. And democracy is healthier for it.