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It’s a commonly held belief that today, conversation is king. It doesn’t matter what arena you’re fighting in. Being prepared, sizing up your opponents, convincing others to follow you, it’s all about what you do and how you say it.

Perhaps Niccolò Machiavelli, the 15th century Italian diplomat, politician and historian was most accurate when he said:

“The best fortress is to be found in the love of the people, for although you may have fortresses they will not save you if you are hated by the people.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to the Labour leadership elections. But with the Constituency Labour Party Nominations (CLP) closing on 14 February, is all fair in love and war?

In the first of a series of reports around the Labour party leadership elections – powered by Four’s proprietary Mapper 360® social listening methodology – we highlight what’s happening in the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections as they play out on the digital and social media stage.

This report looks at the contest from the beginning, examining 675,000 mentions. How the candidates (and remember, there were six of them at the time) fared through the cold, hard month of January and who was saying what.

Our public affairs experts then look at the results: the comments and criticisms, who has the most support and does it really matter anyway?

So who’s talking and what are they saying?

It seems as if the leadership contest has been going on for the longest time already. But hang on to your hats – it’s not over yet. There’s another eight weeks of hustings to go – and like any long war, there will be some reproaches and recriminations along with way.

In the online Wild West, things get personal. There may have been a decline in online buzz after the Labour leadership candidacies were announced, but it is undoubtedly true that the individuals, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Emily Thornberry, Jess Phillips and Clive Lewis (the latter two before they dropped out) rather than the policies got the lion’s share of the conversation. It’s perhaps not surprising that the female candidates received significantly more hate comments online but despite that, there is no outright winner – with all of the candidates receiving mixed sentiment.

When the source social conversations are looked at from the point of view of what is being discussed, the subjects are varied. Unsurprisingly, the wider political discussion is driving the agenda, alongside seemingly interminable Brexit and EU chat.

More surprising was the fact that within the cluster of 1,000 Twitter mentions, when it came to commenting on party politics and membership, a topic that dogged the party during the 2019 general election – anti–Semitism – made up only 2% of the total conversation alongside 12% for the Corbyn legacy and what it means for the future.

And despite the talk of Labour’s new centre of gravity in terms of members and support being in London, two thirds of the conversation took place in the midlands, the north and Scotland. Online, Starmer is currently leading the debate in the south, Long-Bailey in the north and Phillips (when she was in the running) was making it big in the midlands. Interestingly, Nandy led the debate in Scotland in January – but she probably would have preferred that this wasn’t the case as it was off the back of her ‘Catalonia solution’ comments.

Are you with us?

Also worth noting is the Google search for ‘join the Labour party’.  The report shows that numbers have not peaked to reach the levels of interest shown ahead of Corbyn’s leadership campaign in September 2015 and the Brexit referendum in June 2016.  However, the search activity appears to underestimate the extent to which new members joined before the golden date of 20 January 2020 (the cut-off date for being able to have influence in the leadership contest). Estimates have put this at more than 100,000 new members – many of whom appear to be former members who drifted away during the Corbyn years – so they are more able to navigate themselves back into the fold.

So who is creating the most online buzz?

Jess Philips was the queen of the parade before dropping out – leading candidate buzz online – followed by Long-Bailey, Starmer and Nandy (dubbed Queen of the Memes) with Thornberry lagging behind.

Audience wise, Starmer had the largest total audience increase on Twitter, then Long-Bailey with the largest percentage increase in followers and Nandy with a large total and percentage growth in followers.

The online conversations however, don’t necessarily reflect the current state of the contest on the CLP nominations gained. As of today Starmer is at 311, Long-Bailey at 139, Nandy at 59 and Thornberry at 23.

The same trend can be seen with the deputy leader nominations, with the fact that despite Richard Burgon beating his opponents online – hands down – with 58k mentions and Angela Rayner lagging behind somewhat with 39k mentions, when it comes to CPL nominations, the opposite is true with Rayner at 301 and Burgon trailing at 60.

So, it would seem that when it comes to the court of online opinion about the labour leadership and deputy leadership elections, it doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on in the process.

Social conversation – noise or influence?

With the average age of the typical Labour member at 53 and 70% of the social chatter in this report coming from under 45 year olds, it would seem as if those most invested in the contest aren’t commenting online – they’re just listening very carefully. After all, as the old saying goes a pause can be very powerful.

We don’t have to think very far back to see how important social conversation can be. Twitter set the agenda across the pond in 2016 when Donald Trump’s tweets were almost dutifully, covered by journalists.  It cannot be denied that social conversation is hugely important when it comes to politicians putting their points across but it is often a darker mirror when it comes to online conversation from the general public who are invested in a certain subject.  Often, it’s difficult to discern passion from reality.

The success of Jess Phillips online, with her being portrayed as the ‘honest’ and ‘real’ choice before she then dropped out of the contest, is a case in point.

The Corbyn connection

What the social chatter is also revealing very clearly is the post-Corbyn phenomenon where the candidates perceived as closest to him in ideology and approach are getting the most traffic – ardent supporters and fervent critics then gloriously clash in a battle of will and passion.  The result? Numbers for Long-Bailey and Burgon far outstrip their nominations performance.

So when we consider all that – is it any surprise at all that the legacy of Corbyn, Brexit and the EU are top trending issues in the debate?  The hard left claim that Brexit effectively stopped Corbyn building on his 2017 result, whilst the soft left and centre assert that the then leader himself was the niggling problem all along.

And just look at Burgon’s recent proposal that leadership should consult party members before deciding on whether the UK goes to war.  What happened was a wall of noise – praise and denunciation in the strongest terms across the social stratosphere.  But, look deeper and it is clear that the controversy around Bergen’s comments gave way to allowing the narrative around Rayner to develop, as a ‘faction free’ choice with strong left credentials. Arguably a more credible choice?

Are we any clearer?

The online polls so far show that if Starmer and Long-Bailey seem to be emerging as the twin poles of the contest, it is that Lisa Nandy is emerging as a credible ‘third force’. She has been instrumental in pushing the conversation into areas that the party is finding hard to address, including the plight of the ‘left behind’ towns and the issue of free movement.

Long-Bailey is definitely beating everyone online – but at the same time, she is attracting a large amount of negative sentiment – particularly from those who criticise Corbyn’s legacy –, which may also be coming from many ex members who re-joined the party before that golden date of 20 January, in order to influence future leader and deputy leadership decisions.

In the real world, it’s looking most likely that Starmer will win the race  – the ‘nice guy’ in the contest and a uniting force with a high level of engagement and online searches as well as being the least controversial, who can lead the party out of the wilderness.  Nandy, it is thought, is running second with Long-Bailey as third – showing that her popularity online is not translating into real life. Thornberry, it is firmly believed, will not make the mark.

With the deputy leadership contest in mind – it seems a similar story.  Despite Burgon causing controversy and dialogue online, it seems as if Rayner is the most likely, with her strong left credentials, grounding in unions and understanding of community values.

So what’s the outcome?  Starmer and Rayner?  As distant memories of Tony Blair and John Prescott float into our consciousness, the fact is, we’ll just have to wait and see.

For further information or a copy of the report please contact

by Ralph Scott