Why Labour's social media influencer strategy is working (for Jeremy Corbyn, at least)

Jeremy Corbyn Snapchats his brunch with rapper JME

The Labour Party has adopted an influencer-led approach to help it reach young voters spending time on social media networks whose votes are essential to any chance of a Jeremy Corbyn victory on 8 June. Benedict Pringle, founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk, argues that it’s a smart tactic and one that seems to be working.

Labour has successfully mobilised a group of musicians – with large online followings – to encourage people to register to vote and promote Corbyn’s candidacy.

Supporters include Lowkey, Stormzy, JME and Rag’n’Bone man. Getting involved with these particular stars is a smart move for three reasons.

Firstly, they have high saliency amongst a politically relevant audience. Previously unregistered young people are fundamental to Corbyn’s success given their strong propensity to support Labour and the low likelihood of people who voted Conservative or Ukip in 2015 switching to Labour in 2017.

Secondly, the artists are associated with the sort of anti-establishment sentiment that Corbyn espouses, so their respective brand values overlap nicely. Celebrity endorsements where the reason for the brand association is unclear or confusing rarely have any impact and can provoke an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance amongst voters.

For an example of a celebrity that has regularly endorsed campaigns but has rarely been on the winning side, see Eddie Izzard’s interventions on behalf of Labour during the 2010 general election, the ‘Yes’ campaign in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, Ken Livingston’s mayoral campaign in 2012 and Britain Stronger in Europe during the Brexit referendum in 2016. The lack of impact of his endorsements is down to the fact that there was no particular constituency in mind for whom the comedian is particularly relevant and people were unclear as to his credentials for intervening in the campaigns.

Thirdly, given that during the 2015 general election Labour was outspent by the Conservatives on social media by 5:1 and is again likely to have less money to splash on advertising, influencers represent a cost-effective way of generating reach.

However, an influencer strategy without paid media would not be useful if Corbyn was trying to win a majority of seats. There is no way of guaranteeing that organic social media content will be seen by enough of the right audience (young people) in the marginal constituencies that will decide the election; geographic and demographic targeting is only possible by paying for advertising space.

But there’s plenty of indications that imply that Corbyn is not trying to win seats, but is instead focused on increasing Labour’s overall share of the vote, knowing that success on that metric might be enough to justify remaining as leader post-election. If one accepts that national vote share is Labour’s objective at this election, this broad-based social media influencer tactic is very smart indeed.

And there’s some evidence to suggest it has worked: 246,000 people under 25 signed up to vote on the last day of registration for general election 2017. And 1.57million (of a total 2.3 million) of those who registered in the five weeks from the announcement of the election until registrations closed were under 35.

(There is still room for improvement, the Electoral Commission estimates that 30% of 18-34 year-olds are still not registered, compared to 4% of those aged 55 and older who aren’t registered).

We’ll have to wait until 9 June to see if Corbyn can convert these registrations into votes, but they can take some comfort in the fact that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump – two underdogs who beat much more established candidates – were both incredibly successful at both registering and turning out people who were deemed unlikely to vote by political commentators.

That said, the scale of the challenge is significant. In 2015 only 43% of 18-24 year-olds and 54% of 25-34 year-olds voted at the general election (compared to 77% of 55-64 year-olds and 78% of those 65 and over).

An interesting hypothetical question to consider is whether or not Corbyn could have expanded the size of the electorate enough to have had a chance of winning a majority had he been allowed a full five-year term to try. If a sufficient number of young people vote this time around, he may have another opportunity to provide us with an answer to it.

Benedict Pringle is the founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk. He tweets @benedictpringle. You can read his latest columns here.

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