Hear me out: why the Labour Party is insufficiently online

Morgan Jones

You probably saw this article on Twitter or Facebook and clicked on it. You probably follow Labour MPs and do a lot of your engagement with politics through the internet. If this wasn’t the case before the pandemic, it probably is now. Given that, as a party, so much of our discourse and even our procedures take place on the internet, it seems strange to suggest, as I am about to, that we are insufficiently online. In truth, the problem is not that Labour does not happen on the internet: it is that the party does not understand the world of The Online, and to operate in a world you do not understand is an odd and dangerous thing.

For some people, the internet is a place you go to find information or to access services; for other people, it is a place you just kind of are, all of the time, and then it becomes the way your brain works, a particular way of thinking where memes and ideas slot into each other and sentences come to you in pre-packaged formats. If your brain is like this, it is hard to explain the world that made it so – the world of the internet – to someone whose brain is not like this. As the world moves increasingly online, a process sped up by the pandemic, these two ways of engaging find themselves increasingly coming into contact with each other in alarming ways.

There have been incel-related mass killings in the US and Canada, and in Plymouth last month a man who had engaged with incel culture (roughly speaking, this means online spheres where men believe that the social order, more specifically the actions women within that order, seals the possibility of intimacy from them) killed five people and himself. There is a sincere debate as to the degree to which we can consider this engagement a motivating factor in the Plymouth gunman’s actions.

Before you can meaningfully have that debate, you might be expected to know a whole host of information about incels, about who Elliot Rodger is, about the lines between incel thought and the far right, about contemporary anti-feminism as it manifests on the internet, what a red pill is, what a black pill is, about volcels and femcels and staceys and chads and trad wives and evo-psych and 4chan and gamergate. I have spent my working life in and around Labour politics: this is simply not something that most people working in the party are able to do, and the same goes double for Labour MPs. How do you explain a subset of a subset of a subset of a culture to someone who does not understand the terrain on which it has developed?

There are exceptions to this lack of ability to grasp these issues. Bell Ribeiro-Addy – a Black woman, co-chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, a part of Labour’s 2019 intake – is the MP who has most comprehensively used her platform to raise these issues. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Ribeiro-Addy and other more digitally clued-in MPs like Nadia Whittome and Zarah Sultana owe their savvy not just to age, but to coming up in the Jeremy Corbyn years. That is when the party and organisations like Momentum produced comparatively fleet-footed social media content and generally demonstrated a solid, if not infallible, comprehension of how to read the internet.

However, it must be said that even these MPs – who could demonstrate understanding – are hemmed in when it comes to the solutions they offer. Ribeiro-Addy, in her PoliticsHome article on tackling incels, leans heavily on the promise of the online harms bill. Certainly, the bill includes useful provisions; certainly, politicians’ tendency to announce that we should simply police the internet is not going to solve all our problems.

A good (and considerably more light-hearted) example of our party’s failure to grasp the online might be found in Chris Bryant’s recent assertion that people tweeting Simpsons memes at him were threatening him. (Bryant misconstrued a meme of the character Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes, with a caption about academics “hammering” his bad “takes”, as a suggestion that he should be hit with hammers). MPs – particularly women, BME and LGBT+ MPs such as Bryant – are right to be alive to threats and abuse on the internet. They are prevalent, and they should be taken seriously. But if you can’t speak the language, or if you are wrong-footed by context, you will end up misinterpreting what is said.

In Bryant’s defence, the consequences of reading a joke as a threat are not as severe as those of mistaking a threat as a joke. Bryant’s tweets also gesture to another problem raised by our parliamentarians’ relationship to the internet: if you don’t understand the online, you don’t understand how to situate yourself, how to act, online. This is fine for your older family members on Facebook, but less fine for MPs, whose social media accounts exist at a strange nexus of personal opinion and political pronouncement.

The line is that Conservatism is more of a disposition than an ideology; membership of the Labour Party is not without an accompanying attitude, and that attitude is one that is inherently quite earnest. Keir Starmer, when asked about the silliest of silly season stories (Geronimo, the diseased/vindicated alpaca), earnestly responded that he thought the animal should be put down. I happen to think he was right, but I also happen to think that being utterly straight-faced was not the best way to talk about the overhyped camelid.

We have a parliamentary party of primarily middle-aged former third and public sector workers, union organisers, policy wonks, lawyers. They are not equipped for a world where mass shooters begin their sprees with an incitement to “subscribe to PewDiePie” or reference copy pastas in their manifestos. It is not the case that the left can’t meme (demonstrably, we can); more so that at present our party, particularly its representatives, barely understands what a meme is.

Putting aside the hazards of MPs embarrassing themselves on Twitter, we presently have anti-vaxx groups targeting MPs, and last week I rounded the corner of my local park to find a large QAnon-adjacent banner hanging on the railings. Nobody likes to be told that they don’t get it, but our world demands a level of online media literacy that seems to be largely absent from Labour’s parliamentary party.

Everything Labour.
Every weekday morning.

By clicking ‘subscribe’ you confirm you have read and agree to our privacy policy

More from LabourList

Donate to fund our journalism


Subscribe to our Daily Email