On Thursday, voters across the UK will head to the polls in the third general election in less than five years. This contest suggests numerous historical parallels. It’s the first December election since 1923 – an election which incidentally brought in Britain’s first ever (minority) Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. Brexit continues to upset traditional party allegiances, leaving both Labour and Tory heartlands vulnerable. And never before has the environmental crisis featured so prominently as an electoral issue.
The UK’s voting system is notoriously innovation averse. Thousands of workers count pencil-marked voting papers by hand into the early hours on election night. At the same time, parties continue to be drawn to the nostalgic charm of the campaign trail, with its walkabouts, choreographed photo ops and door-to-door canvasses. By contrast, they have been slow to embrace opportunities for virtual interaction with voters. Party political broadcasts have allowed one-way communication from parties to voters on the radio since 1924, and television from 1951. But the first televised election debates only took place in 2010 – as it happens, the same year that Labour launched its manifesto with a futuristic flourish on USB sticks.
What’s struck me in the run up to this election is how parties are becoming increasingly adept at harnessing social media to make their campaigns more participatory – or at least to appear so. The rise of social media has, of course, created new challenges for the democratic process. Amid ongoing debates over the adequacy of the social media giants’ responses to electoral interference, Twitter banned all political adverts last month, forcing Facebook to defend its fact-checking policy. In this context, political parties are increasingly recognising the value of individuals as promoters of their campaigns on social media. Facebook groups have created a new generation of political influencers across the political spectrum, while party-endorsing profile filters allow users to integrate their politics into their online brand at the click of a button. Social media offers both voters and non-voters, party members and non-members, a new platform for grassroots electioneering.
We can see traces of these current trends in the changing electoral culture of the 1880s. The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883 criminalised bribery during election campaigns and placed strict limits on candidates’ election expenses. Faced with new restrictions on paid electoral workers, political parties increasingly turned to volunteers to fill the resource gap and to reach out to new voters enfranchised under the 1885 Reform Act. Newly formed auxiliary party organisations – like the National Liberal Federation and the Primrose League – grew quickly, gathering mass support for the two leading parties. Despite being denied the vote in parliamentary elections, women (and to a lesser extent children) played an important role in this new popular political culture. As part of the Primrose League and in the separate Women’s Liberal Federation that was established in 1887, women provided a significant proportion of parties’ voluntary labour during election campaigns. Children and young people participated actively in branches of the Junior Liberal Association and the Primrose Buds.
Of course, political participation in 2019 looks very different from how it did in 1883. However, the mass party movements galvanised by the electoral reforms of the 1880s and by social media today share certain characteristics. Both aim to give ‘ordinary people’ a stake in election campaigns. They offer a convenient and necessary workaround for parties who find their resources limited or restricted by regulation. They provide opportunities to socialise non-voters into party politics, giving a voice to those without the vote. They might also bring electors disillusioned with politics to the polling station, perhaps for the first time. Although decentralised campaign strategies have the potential to reinvigorate politics, they remain vulnerable to the same electoral corruption they are designed to confront. Political debate at the grassroots creates opportunities for misinformation at the grassroots. If today’s electorate is to be invited to participate more and more in electoral campaigning, then we must also be equipped with the skills to scrutinise and fact-check parties’ messages – both worryingly absent at times over the last five weeks.
Image: ‘On the Hustings’, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club … with notes and illustrations, ed. Charles Dickens, the younger (London and New York, 1886), p. 295. British Library Flickr, no known copyright restrictions.