Vibe check: lit or cheugy? #fyp

Zarah Sultana and the rise of the MP influencer

Artillery Row

As well as being the Labour MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana is something of a social media influencer. Ms Sultana has a formidable 240,000 followers on the video-sharing platform TikTok, where she uploads clips of herself speaking in Parliament, discussing current events and showing off her new “BTS bucket hat” (yes, I do know what that means, and, yes, I do hate myself for it).

You have to nod — if not quite take your hat off — to success. My own politics are almost as different from Sultana’s as “up” is different from “down”, “black” is different from “white” and Beethoven’s 5th is different from Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated, but I readily admit she has a canny grasp of social media. There are enough “political” to “personal” posts, for example, to make her seem serious and passionate without being overearnest.

Davison MP posted footage of herself applying make-up with a Taylor Swift soundtrack

Ms Sultana’s popularity appears to have inspired other politicians to join her on the app. Dehanna Davison MP of the Conservatives has opened a TikTok account where she posted footage of herself applying make-up and heading out to work accompanied by a Taylor Swift soundtrack.

While Ms Davison’s account has been covered by the Daily Mail among other outlets, with fewer than 1500 followers, she has a long way to go to catch up with Sultana. This seems like an uphill task when her latest post sees her indulging in one of politicians’ favourite pastimes: complaining about the trolls.

Sultana and Davison are both members of the class of 2019; their approach hints towards a future of the influencer-MP. An influencer, for the sane among us, is a man or woman who creates media built around a personal brand that guides people’s cultural and commercial behaviour. They have hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere and broadcast to their audiences directly. “Hey, guys,” they might post underneath a photo of themselves contorting their shapely limbs in front of a lamborghini, “absolutely loving this Vitamin C-infused raspberry juice from PlantNice Products. Buy it here using my promo code…” and so on.

It is only natural that politicians would seek a similar kind of status. First, it gets your message out. Ms Sultana’s recent TikTok post about Boris Johnson “lying to you” and “insulting the public” has been viewed more than one million times and “liked” by almost 250,000 people. You can hate TikTok, as I do, and admit that this is an impressive audience for a video clip filmed on a mobile phone.

Secondly, MPs, with insecure employment and less than 1 per cent level wages, could benefit from a personal brand. Public recognition might drive them up the party rankings while increasing their chances of snagging book deals, columns, TV appearances, et cetera. Ms Sultana’s online activities, for example, have allowed her to leapfrog onto the list of names for possible future Labour leadership candidates.

Being recognisable in a broad national sense does not mean being popular in a narrow local sense

Yet there are disadvantages as well. I do not mean disadvantages where society is concerned. Those are very real — arising from the tendencies of such platforms and their content to devolve into narcissism, reductionism and dishonesty, not to mention the discomfiting fact that TikTok itself is owned by the Chinese — but there is no point in shouting at clouds. No, I mean disadvantages for the politicians involved.

Firstly, and most evidently, being recognisable in a broad national sense does not mean being popular in a narrow local sense. Nigel Farage, let us remind ourselves, has never been an MP. Zarah Sultana won her seat by such a narrow margin you could have slipped a toothpick into it. While it is not my place to hold forth on how the voters of Coventry South might behave at the next election, it would be foolish to assume that the superficial popularity that translates into “likes” is matched by the substantive popularity that translates into votes. If the scale of a politician’s online fanbase were a reliably decisive factor in elections, then Corbyn would have triumphed over Johnson with disdainful ease.

Secondly, anyone trying to jape influencer culture has to be aware of quite how dark and depraved it is. Its pretence of openness and independence encourages prurient bin-rummaging on the part of the fans, and disingenuousness and deception on the part of the e-celebs themselves.

MPs might feel under the spotlight already, but that is nothing compared to how an influencer’s audience will investigate their social media posts, their romantic lives, their social lives, the changes in their physical appearance and so on. People as sensitive to abuse and invasions of privacy as politicians are, should be limiting their exposure to the Internet rather than throwing open their doors. When Ms Davison says she wants to offer a peek into “MP life”, I’m not sure she knows what Pandora’s box she’s opening.

Anyway, if an MP really wants to appeal to Generation Z, they have to do more than post on TikTok. They have to be livestreaming Call of Duty twelve hours a day. They have to be taking cottagecore selfies and getting face tattoos simultaneously. They have to browse memes around the clock. Or they could get some new housing built — but perhaps that is too radical for now.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover