Ok, let’s start at the beginning. Well, not quite at the beginning. I should just explain that I’m not seeking to give some sort of rounded, academic history of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. That will have to wait for another day, when the actual work has been done and we’re surveying from the top of a hill marked ‘Socialism in Our Lifetime’. For the moment, I can only offer a partial glimpse of how the campaign was constructed – and at that, only one aspect of it – the social media campaign. Of course there are a thousand other strands. I don’t deny that, but this is the strand which I have been almost totally immersed for the last four 14 weeks and, as it has been almost totally ignored by most of the mainstream media, I think it’s an important tale to tell. Of course, one of the reasons why social media is ignored by the mainstream is that there is often no single person to hang the story around. Social media campaigning is mostly a collective, anonymous enterprise – and where’s the story in that?
The story has characters, though. It begins in 2011 with a simple Facebook page, Red Labour, set up by Alex Craven – a Brighton-based socialist in the Labour Party. Alex is someone who recognised, at a very early stage, the power of Facebook to counter the continued Blairite dominance in the Party. The Red Labour page was initially set up in opposition to two colours of Labour which had come to dominate the Parliamentary Party – as well as the think tanks and party bureaucracy which buttressed the right of centre bloc at Westminster. The first, and dominant faction was Purple Labour, or ‘Progress’ as they tended to sell themselves. They were the bearers of the New Labour flame, a well-oiled machine with almost insurmountable power amongst the elected elite of the party and able to win parliamentary selections at a canter all over the country.
More recently, a new bloc had emerged, with nothing but a collection of ‘intellectuals’, a load of media connections and the odd MP. Blue Labour were closer to the old right of the party, but had rebranded with some anti-immigrant rhetoric and strange intellectualisations of the traditions of the party and the plight of the white working class. The key to Blue Labour’s influence was their connections to the leader’s office under Ed Miliband, rather than any pretence of building a movement, either within or without the party. If they had, I doubt they would have given themselves the toxic name Blue Labour.
Red Labour was originally set up as a ‘rapid rebuttal’ to New Labour / One Nation Labour spin which was a feature of both Purple and Blue Labour and the way they exercised their power. It chose the best contributions from Labour left social media activists, publicised critiques of the status quo and a displayed a hugely irreverent attitude to the grandees of the party. It was funny, sharp and relentless in its pursuit of hypocrisy within the upper echelons of the party. With it its use of graphics and snappy, shareable content, it soon took off. At a time when people were just discovering the possibilities of ‘mini blogs’ on Facebook, the Red Labour page gained 10,000 followers in short time. Suddenly, the unashamed socialist left of the party had an audience.
At that point, in 2011, the situation of the traditional left of the party couldn’t have been more different. Absolutely without influence, centred around the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – the ‘red’ part of the party had been marginalised by the concentration of power in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A small group of MPs still organised with the grassroots left of the party, but they tended to be the equally marginalised Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There was a further problem. The LRC was failing to gain any real traction in the party itself. The grassroots movement which we all knew needed to be built, wasn’t developing in the way we all knew it needed to if we were to challenge. With the heavily resourced Progress still trouncing the left in selections and Blue Labour whispering in Ed’s ear, the LRC, for all their commitment, didn’t look like breaking this vicious cycle.
A few younger LRC activists, including myself and Max Shanly felt that we needed to take radical steps and joined Alex in pursuing the Red Labour project. A bit laughably, some of the more excitable sections of the left positioned around the LRC called it a ‘split’ when it was nothing of the sort. It was just that, like Alex, we believed there was a huge opportunity to connect to a whole group that were beyond the reach of those traditional approaches to socialist politics. Though, like many others, we had criticisms of the LRC, it wasn’t fundamentally about that (I still have my LRC membership card) but we decided to target our efforts at building Red Labour. With more of us contributing, the page grew at a rapid pace. It became more creative, more diverse and more focused on changing the party. Red Labour, on Facebook at least, first became one of the liveliest spaces for the Labour left, and soon, at 20,000, the largest (with the exception of the official Labour Party page).
Inevitably, people soon started to talk about taking it offline. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to help people set up regional groups and the wider, more ambitious Red Labour project was starting to take shape, based not on a membership-style organisation, but a looser supporter network. This brought in a whole new group of activists into the Red Labour operation. In about the space of a year (from 2012 to 2013) it had turned into a serious group within the party. We continued with our staples – we had a particular penchant for Nye Bevan memes, for instance – but now people were meeting offline and organising locally and regionally. That made us stronger, but with more of a sense of responsibility.
The point is about Red Labour is that it was always seen a serious intervention into the party, but we weren’t prepared to play by the rules which seemed to have been set out by those on the left and right of us. It wasn’t quite so earnest as either – it was explicitly populist and accessible. As the 2015 election approached, for example, we presented a series of radical policy proposals, but in badge form. We sought out debate, sometimes controversy – and we tested things out, knowing we’d make mistakes occasionally. This was so radically different from the official output from the party, that it continued to attract a following, both on Facebook and Twitter. Occasionally, we’d post things that the whole team wouldn’t necessary agree with. The Scottish Referendum was a case in point. We didn’t have unanimity within the group, so we decided to post both Yes and No articles on an equal basis.
At other times we’d pull posts as dissent became obvious within the organisers group we’d assembled. Our attitude from day one was never to duck an issue. Let’s argue it out – on the page, through the threads. The philosophy was that, on everything from migration to welfare, we needed to win hearts and minds, even if that meant engaging in late night (and sometimes tedious) battles on the Red Labour page. Gradually, we found that regular visitors to the page would take on each other, normally in a fairly comradely way, but our approach was always an interventionist one. This made it fraught at times, but through all that, we stuck together, determined that we could work together and build this project together – and aware that there weren’t many chances left.
When Ed Miliband resigned in the immediate aftermath of that calamitous General Election, our Red Labour group was generally sceptical about the idea of running a candidate from the left. During the election campaign, we’d done some analysis of the strength of the left of the party in Parliament (and as candidates) and even with a small group of union-backed new candidates being elected, the prospects weren’t good. We estimated 48/49 MPs who could be seen as either rebels or on the left of the party. Even this was stretching the meaning of both words to breaking point. We were fully aware that, as a result of the Collins Review, the bar for PLP nominations had been set even higher. The veto that the Parliamentary Party had was formidable. When Andy Burnham declared early and his team swooped on at least 20 of that list without so much as a blink of the eye, the prospects looked even bleaker. However, within the Red Labour group, the debate began – and we ran over the possibilities again and again. We wrote letters to some of the most likely suspects, even if it was just to put up a candidate so we could have a debate about the veto that the Parliamentary Party had over the choice of a leader.
At this point (in this no-mans-land between Ed resigning and the Labour left finding themselves a candidate) two important things happened which have been buried amongst all the other factors that have been cited. James Doran, a Red Labour organiser in Darlington set up a Facebook page, ‘We want John McDonnell as Labour Leader’. As we had contacted John already, we knew that he wasn’t likely to stand again, but James decided to go ahead with the page, because if nothing else the group would serve as a pole of attraction for those wanted a left candidate. That’s exactly what happened – with an enormous amount of early interest. It was obvious that we weren’t the only ones. Around the 20th of May, two activists, Chelley Ryan and Beck Barnes contacted us at the Red Labour page, saying that they were planning to write an open letter entitled ‘We want an anti-austerity leader’. They asked if we’d look at it and Naomi Fearon, a member of our organising group, suggested a 38 Degrees petition. She worked on it with me and we collectively decided on the right wording. When Chelley and Beck launched it, the petition got an incredible response. It was shared via Red Labour, but Chelley and Beck- along with Naomi’s help – also did an incredible job attracting interest through a wide range of networks. Within a few days, 5,000 people had signed the petition and then, just as it was about to be sent off to John Cryer, the chair of the PLP, we heard the amazing news that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to stand. We weren’t sure how this had happened, but later we heard that it was, ironically, John McDonnell who had played the biggest part in persuading Jeremy to stand.
The ‘little win’: the noms campaign
We raised a few virtual glasses to toast Jeremy Corbyn that evening. When the news filtered through (I believe it was Diane Abbott who broke the news first – through Twitter, of course), at first there was a sense of incredulity. For several weeks, we’d been desperately worried that the left would have no voice within the three month race. We’d even looked into the possibility of organising, at Owen Jones’ suggestion, ‘not the leadership’ rallies which discussed the alternatives to the ‘austerity lite’ narrative likely to be the theme of the leadership circus over the summer. When the news of Jeremy’s candidature came through, then, it felt like our first victory. Even if nothing came of it, we had contributed to laying down a marker – that the socialist left in the party hadn’t completely been routed, silenced.
The next morning I got a call from John McDonnell asking if I could co-ordinate the social media campaign to get Jeremy the nominations. Of course I agreed straight away – this was an incredible chance to play a small part in history. I discussed this with by fellow Durham Red Labourite Paul Simpson and we set up a little campaign headquarters in the People’s Bookshop in Durham and set to work on digging out articles, quotes and images of Jeremy. Both of us had cut our teeth with Red Labour and felt we understood the impact of really good, interactive and provocative social media content. Others across the country started helping out – MarshaJane Thompson and Max Shanly down in London, Adam White in Manchester and a host of others. We used the Red Labour page and our own contacts to kick start it, but the main thing was timing. The Facebook page and Twitter account went live within 12 hours of the announcement – and that was crucial. That enabled us to take maximum advantage of the coverage of Corbyn’s surprise announcement and capitalise on the immediate surge in interest. Within 24 hours, we had a couple of thousand people on the page and had gained hundreds of followers on Twitter.
Once the initial building of the page and Twitter had been done, we determined to get to work on the MP nominations, one by one. Red Labour was a virtual campaign HQ. In amongst this burst of activity, we received a private message from a Labour councillor, which said simply #JezWeCan. He contacted us not long after asking us to not credit him with what we saw as a good pun at the time, and in the delay, another Red Labourite, Hazel Nolan, had tweeted the hashtag (apparently the very first to do so). We thought it was a good joke – a tongue in cheek reference to the Obama campaign slogan – but not for a second did we think it would become the political phrase of the summer. No matter, we posted a meme up on Red Labour with the #JezWeCan hashtag and a picture of Jeremy. That meme would later be turned into a t-shirt by MarshaJane and a load of grassroots Unison activists at Scottish Unison Conference. It was an electrifying buzz to find the left suddenly alive with creativity.
But there was less sexy work to get on with too. The Red Labour collective got to work preparing spreadsheets, we published email addresses and Twitter accounts, drew up lists and crossed names off the lists a matter of hours later. All the time, the possibilities were becoming narrower and narrower. Nevertheless, we carried on regardless – organising Twitter storms, petitions and mass letter writing campaigns. Of course, we didn’t realise how hard it would be, but a strange thing happened: the more resistant MPs seem to be, the more people seemed to want to get involved. People came out of nowhere and took responsibility for huge chunks of the campaign. At first, there was some apprehension – should we be taking a more centralised approach? But after deliberating for all of a few minutes, it became obvious that events had overtaken our plans – it was no longer ‘our’ campaign – it belonged to those who wanted to contribute. And this nominations campaign had become an issue of democracy.
The sum total of the online activity was just incredible – and relentless. This now was reaching far beyond our Red Labour group. Here came the Corbynistas! Some people gave over whole evenings to emailing everyone on the list. Others engaged their own MPs in lengthy debates over twitter. It was a genuinely spontaneous and collective moment. It was an intense week of activity. While we were organising the mass emailing and tweeting of MPs, a thousand activist flowers were blooming. One of the most significant was Stuart Wheeler’s change.com petition: ‘We call on Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn’, which gained over 7,500 signatures – which again was extensively shared on social media and featured in the press. Stuart, from St Blazeys in the South West, was known to us in Red Labour, but again, his petition was a perfect example of someone just getting off their backside and deciding that he was going to give the campaign his all. We weren’t going to bow down to the PLP and their accepted ways of doing things – the “common sense” which said that they knew best who should be on the ballot paper and how the debate should be framed. There was a real sense in which we were determined to have our voice heard, at last. And we did. That’s why, when the mainstream press decided that those nominations were ‘gifted’, it stuck in the craw. And it wasn’t true.
On that Monday lunchtime, on the 15th of June, we live tweeted the final hours of the nominations process. Sitting there, waiting for news from John McDonnell, refreshing the twitter account manically, was agony. I was personally quite confident that we’d done it – but I now realise that was partly wishful thinking: surely all that effort, everyone efforts couldn’t have been in vain? Well, they could quite easily have been. There was some cat and mouse games being played, and as John later revealed, a couple of MPs were waiting outside the lobby, not wanting to be the 35th MP to nominate, until they were virtually dragged in by John. When he quickly announced on his Facebook page that the threshold had been passed, we revealed the incredible news to the social media world instantly. If it had been a football stadium, the place would have erupted, such was the reaction. I sat there and stared at my computer screen and I’m not ashamed to say that I seriously welled up as the enormity of what we had done hit home. The PLP nominations were a massive hurdle – it had been their veto on real, party democracy and we’d beaten it.
The ‘big win’: the leadership election
So here we were. If getting a candidate was part one, and getting the nominations was part two, part three was the big one: how to get a 200-1 shot elected to the leadership of the Labour Party. This time, I took the initiative. I immediately contacted John and asked if I could carry on with the social media campaign role. It didn’t take long to wrap up. I contacted my PhD supervisors who were incredibly helpful – and I was granted a period of interruption in my studies to work on the campaign full-time. The decision to give me licence to develop an independent social media campaign alongside a Jeremy’s personal social media accounts proved to be one of the best decisions of the campaign. I enlisted the help of MarshaJane Thompson, who I knew mainly through the LRC and we quickly assembled a small group of volunteers. Right from the off, this group gave the campaign a massive shot in the arm – and it was constantly vibrant, creative, enthusiastic and absolutely relentless.
I’d argue too, that it was the driver for much of the most positive aspects of the campaign: getting across Jeremy’s central messages of respect and encouraging debate rather than a beauty contest; the popularisation of the policy interventions; pushing fundraising targets and encouraging engagement as volunteers, supporters and attendance at the huge events all over the country. Most importantly, it was able blunt some of the media attacks by relentlessly pushing a positive message and creating alternative sources of ‘news’ for our supporters (in a recent YouGov survey, 57% of Corbyn supporters stated that they saw social media as their main source for news for the campaign, as opposed to 38-41% for other candidates and 32% for the wider population)
I became more of a co-ordinator proper, asking the team to come up with memes, fishing out articles and quotes. In contrast to some of the other leadership campaigns, our social media campaign was completely organic and grassroots. We had assembled a team of activists around the left of the party: people who could design those memes, who understood Jeremy’s politics and who were in touch with the wider movement. There was deliberately no thematic line. It was creative and at times ad hoc, but it connected with people much better than the slick offerings of the other candidates. We had a constant supply of fantastic contributions from Andrew Fisher and the central policy team, and, gradually – a load of good news stories – not from the mainstream press, but from the website team; from those out with Jeremy at hustings all over the country; the enormous rallies that followed; the amazing volunteer operation run by Kat Fletcher and the massively professional phone bank operation co-ordinated by Alex Halligan.
This all fed into the next stage of the election campaign: the CLP nominations. This was being co-ordinated centrally via the ‘ground operations team’, but we used social media to not only raise awareness of the process, but also, crucially, to celebrate the successes. So when a CLP nominated Jeremy, they would get a little ‘thank you’ meme quickly produced by our design team. The response, especially on Twitter, was phenomenal. Throughout, the newly installed regional organisers, 12 strong, were running around, putting in the most incredible shifts to make sure we capitalised on this momentum and secured as many CLP nominations as possible – updating the regional Facebook pages when they could take time to draw breath. When the results started coming through, it was like an earthquake. This was so significant because we had expected to struggle amongst established party members. As those CLP nominations racked up, we realised that we’d underestimated our fellow party members. This was a genuine grassroots revival in the party. Of course, we could all claim we’d seen it coming and via Red Labour we’d always said it was possible, but nevertheless, this was incredible.
Organising ourselves around the phrase that would become emblematic of not just the social media campaign, but the campaign as a whole: #JezWeCan, the social media team – which was split over four cities from London to Durham – worked together in absolute, collective unity, mostly via a single Facebook thread. MarshaJane Thompson, my fellow co-ordinator, was a fantastic ally throughout – totally reliable, she also managed the online shop which produced the #JezWeCan t-shirts, raised a ton of cash for the campaign and organised the huge Union Chapel fundraiser night in London. She carried the Twitter operation for much of the time, ably helped by James Doran in Darlington. I did most of my work from Durham, and when Marsha became officially part of the media strategy team down in London, the whole thing started really clicking. James did much of the Twitter grind of following accounts (even some which later proved not to be quite what they seemed at first sight). Paul Simpson, my colleague at the People’s Bookshop was one of the constants throughout, who built the presence of the Facebook campaign at the crucial stage before nominations and was relentless in publicising Jeremy’s proud history as an M.P.
Unison’s Andrew Berry was our eyes and ears for stories on the ground. The incredibly talented Leonora Partington gave us the most fantastic, fearless graphics – some of which were shared to millions. At times we were firing this stuff out at a rate of knots, so the help of Ruth Berry and Charley Allan was crucial in rebutting the nasty and cynical attacks from the traditional media. Jason Harris was the campaign’s brilliant photographer and captured both Jeremy and our events superbly, which helped so much when it came to producing the shareable graphics. Yannis Mendez’s videos were just brilliant – they really captured the diverse grassroots authenticity of the campaign and rightly received rapturous feedback. Finally, Jack Bond was the link between the social media team and the central campaign – a real team player who at one point drove through the night from London to deliver Durham Miners Gala leaflets, arriving at 3am. We worked so well together – with genuine respect, creativity and comradeship. Nobody even got upset over my pedantry about commas and colons.
The #JezWeCan social media campaign has been, by a long stretch, the biggest single campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen. Sure, we had the raw material too. Jeremy was a dream candidate for the social media age: everything he said was clear, accessible and without jargon. Jeremy’s record could speak for itself, but he’d never had such a platform. Our Facebook page gained nearly 70,000 likes in three months, with our top post reaching 750,000 people. On a weekly basis, between 1.5 and 2 million people were seeing our Facebook posts (immediately following the election win, it topped 6 million). In terms of engagement (likes, shares and comments), the average weekly engagement was around the 200k mark, with a peak of 600k in late July, with another peak just after the result of 800,00. 18,000 people signed up to go to our virtual Facebook event ‘I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election’. Our output averaged about 10 posts a day, which over the three months will be close to 1000 posts. On Twitter, we gained 64,000 followers, nearly 250,000 mentions were made of the campaign on Twitter and our top tweet was retweeted 1,800 times. We posted a total of 4,100 tweets (including retweets). Our most successful Twitter storm saw the campaign mentioned 22,500 times in just two hours, but other Twitter ‘events’ saw our campaign trending at various times throughout the summer. At the last televised hustings in Gateshead, our campaign had 69% of all Twitter mentions, with Cooper and Burnham on 14% and Liz Kendall on 3%. Our top embedded video was Owen Jones’ speech at the Glasgow rally, with 97.1k views and a reach of 291,000. We have also experimented with Instagram, which has a much younger demographic and is focused on sharing images, gaining 1430 followers in a quick time, more than ten times any other candidate.
That’s the campaign in numbers, but it’s about so much more than the numbers – it’s about the democratic possibilities which are opened up by this new medium and this extensive reach. It gives us leverage where previously there was very little – and it has been the generator for the campaign on the ground throughout the summer. The extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign, which laid the foundations for the huge appetite for Jeremy’s ideas and our policy discussions by making sure that Jeremy was constantly in the public eye, with quotes, selected highlights from articles, ‘unity’ statements, interviews and some superb videos which highlighted the grassroots movement as it was being built. All of this generated its own alternative media – which counteracted much of the negativity and bile being poured out from the mainstream media. More than that, it generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from (we dealt with hundreds if not thousands of individual messages and enquiries to the Facebook and Twitter pages). If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to our social media operation.
This is a massive and significant sea change in the way we do our politics. When the over whelming 59.5% vote came through on that historic Saturday at the QE II Conference Centre, we knew that hundreds of thousands were poised to celebrate on Facebook and Twitter. When the first round results were announced, a few audible gasps were heard in the hall, but not from the social media team. We released the #JezWeDid meme – and it was shared to half a million within the hour.
For me, social media now needs to be seen as an integral part of what happens next. Although we rightly have scepticism about the Obama administration, there’s no doubt that as a social media campaign, they are still the model (though we also have a new model now being created by Bernie Sanders’ campaign). What the Obama campaign did was quite radical. They allocated equal resources to their social media operation as they did to their traditional press operation. I think we need to embrace this new, democratic medium and do the same. It’s important to have articles in the Guardian, the Independent, to have positive news coverage wherever possible, but it won’t be enough. If we are serious about winning in 2020, we need to engage in a mass education campaign, making our policy messages accessible and popular. We need to launch the biggest ever social media counter narrative to the storm that is coming our way. We have learnt important lessons over the last three months and we’ve run a great social media campaign, but we’ve only scratched the surface. The social media campaign has been an incredible experience, not just for those involved officially, but for everyone who has made a contribution – small and big. But all of us know that it can be so much better, so much bigger and so much more effective – if we are bold enough to take up the challenge.
– Ben Sellers
First published on The World Upside Down blog