There are moments when something that at the outset looks like a joke or another online fad suddenly becomes more serious. A number of recent internet phenomena have followed this pattern, from hashtags (#MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter) that represent the first visible sign of social movements to memes that have genuinely energised political audiences. The virality of these phenomena, their ability to construct collective identities for social and political movements, is not mysterious or irrational, as implied by terms such as “meme magic” (often used in reference to Pepe the Frog as an icon for the alt-right). Rather, their success proceeds from their ability to capture and name sentiments that already exist in the public, but in a dispersed way.
This is precisely what has happened with Britain’s newest political party: the Northern Independence Party (NIP), which has managed to make the leap from meme to movement. Advocating for the secession of the north from the rest of England, this self-described democratic socialist formation has quickly attracted the attention of leftists on Twitter disenchanted with Keir Starmer’s dull and even toxic leadership, uninspiring proposals and authoritarian party management. Yet it can no longer be said to be a purely social media phenomenon. What started off as a Twitter account posting creative graphics and clever slogans has in just six months become an actual political party, one currently awaiting registration with the Electoral Commission.
What’s more, the NIP is already preparing its own first electoral contest in Hartlepool, close to Durham, where it will be represented by former Colne Valley Labour MP Thelma Walker (though due to problems registering with the Electoral Commission, Walker will appear on the ballot as an independent). According to Survation, Walker is polling third at 2%, ahead of both the Lib Dems and the Greens. The fact that Starmer himself has had to step in to canvass in the absence of grassroots activists in the by-election campaign risks making a Labour loss a new low point in his already beleaguered leadership. If Labour does lose, as it is likely to, it will no doubt try to blame the NIP. It should start by blaming itself for the NIP’s very existence.
Like other digital parties that I have described in my work, such as Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy, NIP proceeds from a dissatisfaction with the existing party system and the way it has deprived many people of a meaningful choice. Digital parties thrive in areas where traditional parties have come to be seen as structures that exist not to represent the citizenry, but to control it, by reducing as much as possible the scope of permissible political discussion. In this respect, Labour and the Tories certainly fit the bill.
Digital parties also take hold where members of traditional parties feel disenfranchised. They are often a response to what political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair call cartel parties, namely those that, like economic cartels, aim to restrict offer while favouring individual gain. Cartel parties abhor internal pluralism and dissent and do away with any serious vestige of intra-party democracy. Starmer’s purge of the left perfectly exemplifies the internal workings of a cartel party.
Against this exclusive and self-serving model, many new digital parties adopt more open forms of organisation. Typical in these parties is the use of a participatory platform, often a section of the party website, that enables members to participate in discussions, vote in consultations, donate money and attend events.
Digital parties are also parties that heavily use social media, and which have adopted new arenas of political communication such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to offset their lack of visibility in mainstream news media.
While the successes of Podemos and the Five Star Movement may be encouraging, NIP faces further hurdles on its path to becoming an established electoral force in the UK. First, as Alex Niven argues, the party faces the usual strictures of the first-past-the-post system which makes it very hard for parties other than Labour and the Conservatives to gain representation. Second, as all parties in their early phases, it must create an organisational structure (though its digital-first nature has allowed it to organise rapidly). Most importantly, fundraising is a major issue for many new parties; it should never be underestimated how costly it is to run an effective political organisation.
Philip Proudfoot, the founder of NIP, is smart and daring, and has demonstrated the ability to bring together a group of people around a common project. However he, or whatever other leadership figures NIP will nurture, still need to demonstrate their appeal beyond the Twittersphere, in particular their ability to strike blows in the TV boxing ring, which, despite the growing importance of social media, still remains the chief arena where political battles are won and lost. Another question regards the very ideology of the movement and whether it is able to stick in the public imagination.
The very fact that democratic socialists such as NIP supporters think that the only way forward is to call for northern secession is a sign of the times. Globalisation has created deep geo-economic fractures between commercial hubs (such as London) and more economically marginal reasons (such as the north). In so doing, it has made demands for local sovereignty highly appealing to growing sections of the population who feel alienated from the political class. Nevertheless, the idea of an independent Northumbria is perhaps asking too much of Hobsbawm’s notion of the “invention of tradition”.
It is hard to say whether NIP will manage to build on the initial wave of enthusiasm it has harnessed and go on to become a formation able to realistically compete for parliamentary seats. Digital parties are like start-ups. They have a very high mortality rate, meaning that the most likely outcome is failure, especially in a FPTP system as in Britain. Yet the very few that make it can go on to radically reshape the political system; in just a few years, Podemos and the Five Star Movement have moved from the internet to the streets to the seat of government.
Regardless of what happens on 6 May, however, the NIP’s appearance sends a signal of which politicians, particularly in the Labour party, would do well to take note. What the NIP’s popularity makes clear is that despite the defeat of Corbynism, the popular desire for a new kind of politics is as strong as ever – and that the Blair re-run that Starmer is offering goes nowhere near satisfying it.
Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist and political theorist. He is the author of The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy and The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic, forthcoming with Verso.