Jeremy Corbyn’s organic support knocked the media and political establishment for six in 2015, and again in 2017 when a wider public briefly got on board with his progressive message. Ever since, every minor figure in British politics has been trying to engineer their own fan base in the hope that they can parlay a media profile into electoral success.
Nigel Farage has always had the loving crowds, and yet couldn’t get a Brexit Party MP elected. Rory Stewart is trying to gather new support for his London mayoral run as an independent candidate, but given his recent Tory leadership campaign, the social media noise may not be sufficient to achieve the result he desires.
The biggest recent failure on the fandom front was former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who was so desperate to make it happen from the top down that she put her own face on a battle bus and set up a “Swinzone” selfie area at a launch event in Edinburgh. She lost her personal ratings in the polls, followed by her parliamentary seat in December’s election.
The more voters saw of her, the less they liked her; even Lib Dem members couldn’t cope with the presidential style of her campaign. Branding leaflets as “Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats”, and the ludicrous claim she could be the one walking through the door at No 10 after the December election, was a step too far, putting the fandom cart way ahead of the horse.
Another media favourite, Jess Phillips, risks failing in her footsteps.
Having passed the MP endorsement threshold, Phillips now needs to persuade 5 per cent of constituency Labour parties or affiliates (including two trade unions) of her leadership in order to get on the final Labour leadership ballot paper.
It’s not the media or the politically homeless few that she has to convince right now; it’s the membership and their representatives.
When someone tells you that people are swooning at the sight of them, with no hint of embarrassment, it comes across much less well than telling people you’re still surprised that people know who you are and listen to what you have to say.
Speaking on LBC on Monday, Phillips said: “Yes, there are moments that I still will catch my breath. I mean, the first time anyone comes up to you in public and is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, Jess Phillips!’ A woman cried at the sight of me the other day at the train station, as if I was Take That or the Beatles or something and that is a bonkers moment.”
Show, don’t tell, Jess. The thing is, it’s off-putting and comes across as arrogant to tell people that you’re really popular. It has to be something people witness for themselves and report to others, otherwise the crowds will soon dissipate, like Corbyn’s popularity. Fandom is something that comes from the bottom up and can’t be engineered. The self-styled “Beckybois” backing Rebecca Long-Bailey may be trying to make something out of nothing, given the lack of charisma and excitement around her campaign so far, but she isn’t the one shouting against all odds that she has what it takes to beat the Tories.
Long-Bailey wasn’t meant to be the left’s main candidate, of course. That was Laura Pidcock, who, like Swinson, lost her seat late last year. As with Stewart, Phillips and Swinson, Pidcock’s backers put the cart before the horse in fandom terms. Despite vocal support from the left online, one of the most bizarre images of the 2019 election for me was the sight of Pidcock tote bags and T-shirts piled up at her campaign launch in Consett. Where was the demand? People in Unite tabards were giving them away, like Change UK were with their shirts when I reported on one of their “rallies” – and, also like Change UK, the party name wasn’t on Laura’s merch. The T-shirts just had her name and a line drawing of a rose, and the tote bags had #TeamPidcock and the slogan “OCCUPY EVERY SPACE WITH YOUR POLITICS”. Sadly for her team, she couldn’t even occupy North West Durham.
If the strong sense of identity and community that is needed for fandom isn’t there, there is no fandom. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Phillips claimed to have the “magical” touch with the public, able to “engender trust and connection in people within literally a matter of seconds”. Telling, not showing, again. Swinson’s story should be a cautionary tale for all – she won the leadership, but not the argument. Boris Johnson may be an empty vessel, but he is a prime minister with a thumping majority. Does Phillips have the range? Or is she another empty Swinzone?
Penny Andrews is a researcher in politics and fandom at the University of Sheffield