Craig Ling

Grayling London, Victoria

If you doubt the reach of social media it is worth considering that a tweet earlier this month from @Harry_Styles of boy-band One Direction was retweeted 17,000 times and favourited by over 20,000 people.

What innovative and thought-provoking content sparked such an interest in the musings of Harry Styles? The tweet from the former Mr Taylor Swift read simply: ‘I like fields.’

And there in a nutshell is the power of Twitter. Even the most banal and innocuous of content can reach a large audience, so imagine what good content could do?

In fact there are studies to suggest that Twitter puts a wealth of interesting data in our hands. Twitter, it is said, can help us predict flu-epidemics, the stock-market (if only), and according to a recent report by the University of Indiana, the outcome of elections. So can a look at social media provide us with an insight regarding who will be the next Lib Dem Leader?

As far as the bookies are concerned there are five leading candidates for the top-job in the Lib Dems, not that there is any sign of Nick Clegg falling on his sword anytime soon. However it’s Conference season and with it comes the inevitable raft of speculation and gossip that fuels the delegates in the Conference Bar until the sun goes down.

Five names will dominate discussions and are favoured by Paddy Power: Tim Farron, the Lib Dem President; Vince Cable, Secretary of State at BIS; former pork pie factory employee and Energy Secretary Ed Davey; Norman Lamb, famed for ‘launching’ the career of pint-sized rapper Tinchy Stryder; and David Laws, who’s career stalled after the expenses scandal which forced his resignation in the early throws of the Coalition Government.  

Click here for more insight into how the future Lib Dem leadership candidates compare online.
(PDF, 5.0mb)

So how do they all fare online and what does the data tell us about their prospects? 

As our info-graphic shows, all of the leading lights are active in one way of other on Twitter except David Laws. But, if we look at the data, it’s clear that David Laws doesn’t actually need his own account to have an impact online – 16% of all conversations about the five leading candidates concern David Laws, a remarkably high statistic for someone without his own online presence, but perhaps expected from someone who has been a senior figure in the Party since he was first elected in 2001. But the lack of proactive engagement on his part puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to relating to and engaging with the Party’s grassroots membership.

In contrast, the bookies’ favourite and Party President Tim Farron boasts an impressive 17,000 followers on Twitter, second only to political heavyweight Vince Cable. He’s popular and his followers are increasingly drawn from the grassroots membership of the Party – those who ultimately will determine who succeeds Nick Clegg to the job. Tim features far less in the natural flow of mainstream political news on Twitter, but that is expected – he is the only serious contender without a relatively high-profile ministerial position. His brand is a step removed from Government and a step closer to those who will anoint the next king or queen. 

So why are the bookies right to pick out Tim Farron as a future leader of the Party?

First, his role as Party President neatly disassociated him from the Coaliton to a certain extent. His role is to bridge the gap between the Parliamentary Party and the membership (which sits to the political left of the Coalition). He can bask in the glow of the odd Lib Dem success story, but keep associations with Syria, welfare reform or secret courts at arms-length.

The second reason why Farron is a contender is clearly visible online when you compare his online footprint with that of Vince Cable. 

Based solely on a cursory glance, Cable looks unbeatable. He has more followers on Twitter and is mentioned more often online that the other four potential candidates put together. He generates more column inches, is debated more often in online forums, features more heavily in political blogs and is name-checked with greater frequency on Twitter. But, the raw statistics can only tell us so much, because what Vince Cable lacks is an audience and the right approach to engagement.

Cable’s audience is broad and sizeable, but that apparent competitive advantage is nullified when you consider that his followers are proportionally less likely to be active Lib Dem members. Equally, Cable’s style online varies dramatically to that of Farron – he’s online but he’s not engaging. There is little evidence of a conversation, debate or a two-way dynamic with his followers, unlike Tim Farron who is proactively responding to his audience. 

Cable, like Harry Styles, is busy telling his vast audience that he ‘likes fields’, but Farron is out there talking about those ‘fields’ in depth and understanding how his followers feel about ‘fields’. As a result the relationship Tim enjoys with the Lib Dem membership online has all the hallmarks of more robust and mature one, which will stand him in good stead when the next Leadership Election comes around and he needs to mobilise his supporters. The bookie’s money is on Farron and based on a snapshot of social media this year, so is mine.