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Keir Starmer needs a strategy for social media

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer during a visit to Whitmore Park Primary School in Coventry. Photograph: Jacob King/PA. - Credit: PA

The Labour leader made a good start when he was in the leadership race, but the party needs to now make a bigger impact to be heard.

First off, let’s be clear, as a social media manager I acknowledge that bubbles on Twitter are not reflective of the real world. It’s why trends about making Jeremy Corbyn the next prime minister on polling day never became a reality. But social media does matter, as we’ve seen whenever the country goes to the polls.

A decade ago Labour were ahead on this, but the EU referendum seemed to be a turning point for campaigners on the right. In my mind there is no doubt Vote Leave’s online operations helped tip the Brexit result, and again when the Tories hired the same individuals to run the 2019 general election campaign.

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Powerful imagery of working-class voters ‘lending’ their vote in 2019, ‘shitposting’ – where the Tories purposely pushed out messaging they knew would anger their opponents to get them to share, and videos which attempted to paint their incompetent leader as more competent than Jeremy Corbyn all mattered at the last election.

Johnson’s team know this, that is why they have delved into Snapchat and Instagram, and made Facebook Live a focus for the People’s PMQs sessions.

Away from the Twitter bubble, it was clear from Facebook that the last general election was going to be a win for the Tories, as countless working-class voters where I grew up were sharing posts to their friends warning people about Corbyn and in support of Johnson.

The Tories recognise Facebook mattered, spending nearly £1 million in the last week of the election campaign, double the figures of Labour.

A study by First Draft after the election found that 90% of their paid advertising contained misleading information, but by contrast not a single Labour advert had a misleading claim, suggesting the opposition was not doing enough to counteract the governing party’s claims.

Keir Starmer’s first move on becoming leader, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, was to scrap Facebook advertising. It is a powerful tool way to reach audiences beyond the usual Labour bubble and, while it is a principled move, leaves his party needing to do even more to get the message out.

Since Johnson was elected Tory leader a year ago we have all been used to him gamifying the social media landscape. We all remember seeing ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ trending on Twitter as people mocked the innuendo. We remember Rishi Sunak posting a picture of teapots when the pubs reopened. Or the way social media reacts to amplify Cummings’ three word slogans.

What stands out for Labour’s efforts?

At the same time, key proponents of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership appear to be doing little to help Starmer’s cause. An inaccurate claim about the new Labour leader will be posted, only to be repeated by a network of left-wingers resistant to the new leader.

When Starmer tweeted in support of colleague David Lammy in his battle against racist abuse, he was accused of not doing the same for others experiencing abuse, including Dawn Butler. But a quick search of his tweets showed he had already done just that.

When the Labour leader used the term ‘a moment’ to define the Black Lives Matter movement, opponents on the left accused of racism himself. Weeks followed until he used an interview with LBC to explain what he actually meant.

That is not to say that it is Starmer’s role to rebut every piece of misinformation spread on social media, but it does rely on the shadow cabinet to all play their part.

During the leadership election the MP’s team capitalised on social. The video at the launch of his campaign both positioned himself as a human as well as a natural successor to be leader. He carried out a series of online live events with supporters, and posted slick, shareable and eye-catching imagery and video.

But since becoming leader, the Labour machine has returned to what it finds most comfortable.

Ed Miliband fell into the same trap as leader. It was not until he resigned as leader in 2015 he appeared to gain some personality. Responses to his tweets were that they wish he had acted in that way as leader.

It is possible to be both personable and effective with social media and effective at politics. Johnson might not tick both of those boxes, but someone like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand does.

She hit back at critics by going viral, at home and overseas, with a video outlining all of her achievements in power where she attempted to name them all in less than two minutes. Johnson even tried it himself – but had a fair fewer to shout about.

She goes ‘live’ on Facebook several times a week, with her holding the camera herself as she speaks to her followers. She posts photographs about her family, her packed lunches, and human emotions. In effect she acts like a normal person in a position of power.

If Starmer wants to continue to grow his support base he and his shadow cabinet must not leave his Tory opponents to dominate social media. Labour has a lot of work to do to appear electable ahead of 2024, but it should not turn its back on social media. Especially now the Conservatives have demonstrated they now ‘get’ how to make it work for them.

Labour must follow Ardern’s lead in stepping out of comfort zones to try different things to reach new audiences, or otherwise its leader could fall into the same trap as Ed Miliband.

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