There aren’t many recreational events where members of the public turn out suited and booted on a very warm Saturday morning. But this was an event for Conservative party activists in London.
I was handed a national flag as I joined the queue to enter the theatre. It got a bit of waving for the opening keynote speech from Jeremy Hunt. The then Foreign Secretary was tie-less and wearing a sparkling white shirt in muscle-fit. By the time Esther McVey, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, hit the stage in the afternoon to big up Boris Johnson, the crowd were clapping like it was the Last Night of the Proms.
The line-up was an all-star affair, coming in the midst of the Tory leadership election. But, by this time, the field had narrowed to two. Audience members cried out “Where’s Raab? WHERE’S RAAB?” after it became apparent that Dominic Raab, who had briefly served as Brexit Secretary and even more briefly run for the leadership, had not turned up.
Raab had been replaced on the bill by junior minister James Cleverly. This was a big blow to some of the audience. This is no slight to Cleverly, but many of them were not there to talk about a grassroots renaissance, which was what the centre-right organisers were peddling. They were there to see the big names up close – and to take part in something.
The congregation of Tories took dozens of photos, gave standing ovations, sought selfies with their heroes, and cheered and booed like they were at the wrestling. The heroes were obvious. Priti Patel got delighted whoops for saying “The room is full of Thatcherites here”. And the media are, increasingly, the villains (or “heels”, to use ringside parlance).
“We all know the media is full of lefties,” cackled McVey, in reference to a widely publicised beef with queen of daytime TV Lorraine Kelly. She made a second entrance after she deemed the response to her first to be too meek and received the rapturous reception she demanded. When I asked Cleverly a tough question, the Boris fans started screaming and booing at me.
This meeting was a demonstration of a powerful, growing force in our politics: fandom. The shouting flag-wavers were intensely committed fans, no different from those I’ve met at Doctor Who fan conventions. And that is perhaps the best way to understand this.
Politics is being shaped by fandom. If you want to understand our future, you need to understand ideas better known for describing how people end up falling in love with science fiction.
A lot of things attract fans – from lousy football clubs to the most minor TV reporters. Parties have always had them. People just like stuff. In most cases, you get a fan base – a group of individual fans that may never really interact with others and just enjoy their interest on their own or with their friends.
What makes a fan part of a narrower fandom rather than the broader fan base is the sense of community and identity that comes from joining in. The whole process is a lot more encompassing and intense. Someone who is part of the Harry Potter fandom will probably seek out and own artefacts and merchandise beyond the books and movies, engage with debates within the fandom, and talk to other fans on or offline. They may also collect or make relevant content.
Being part of a fandom seeps into the fan in ways that make fandom different to partisanship, tribalism or mere membership. Fandom becomes part of their identity, and the fans feel joined to their fellow fans. They share ideas, theories and news stories. They go to events, talk about their interest – and get joy from the sense of communion. It gives them purpose.
For the first time ever, the UK has a Cabinet made up of self-identified fans of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill – and not in the sense of their being supporters of their governments. Our cabinet proudly display the posters, the badly-written biographies and the attempts to get a Lady Thatcher Day to prove it.
This is certainly not a purely Tory phenomenon. You can see the importance of fandom in the Brexit Party, which exploded into existence this year – topping the polls at the European election just a few months after coming into being.
You can set aside a lot of the analysis of it: think of it as a machine built to secure a fandom. The leader Nigel Farage and chair Richard Tice know what their audience wants. Part of the reason for their success is they have built a device which binds its fans to it.
Lessons have been learned from UKIP and the Leave campaign. Big venues! Cheap tickets! Air raid sirens! Lights! Flags! Simple messages! If you’re not with Nigel, you’re against him, and he feeds the fans new material all the time. It’s music hall meets conspiracy theory, and it works for Trump too.
This is politics, inflected with something else. Think the Doctor Who exclusive trailer releases at San Diego Comic-Con, the credit sequences in Marvel films, the references and jokey footnotes in Terry Pratchett books. They show awareness of the fandom and lock in loyalty by rewarding it and cranking up the excitement.
There have always been elements of fame and fandom to UK politics. Benjamin Disraeli was a celebrity novelist as much as he was a politician, and Queen Victoria wrote him obvious fan letters as well as writing about him to other people. He got his own day when he died (“Primrose Day”) and his fans were co-opted into supporting the Tories via the Primrose League, a fan club complete with collectable pamphlets and badges. Disraeli’s great rival, Gladstone, had fans who waved at his train as he travelled the country, and big crowds turned out to see both of them.
Footage from the 1970s shows multiple occasions at which the crowds shouted “We want Wilson!” for Harold Wilson, hung around outside venues for glimpses of the man and his ministers, and otherwise behaved like the fans they were. Video from other party conferences shows that members have always attended to wave flags and cheer for their politicians.
But this all works as never before because technology acts as an intensifier for fan behaviour. What was once confined to a few mass events is now being mainlined by susceptible voters. Because of the intimacy of having a smartphone in your hand and the ubiquity of social media, the emotional experience of political fandom is more intense than it used to be. More people are being swept into the hardest of hardcore fandoms.
Social media allows an audience member to feel as though they know a person almost like a friend or family member – particularly when that person interacts with them or follows them back.
It also weaponises fans: each one is a publisher, recruiting new supporters via Facebook, Twitter and in real life. Technology increases the value of fan activity around a candidate or campaign, reinforces messages and makes people’s views more public.
But this can also drive increased conflict. Indeed, sci-fi fans will be familiar with anti-fandom, a passion as strong as fandom but against a politician, campaign or political position. Remainers don’t just campaign for Remain, they spend quite a lot of time on hating Leave and key Leavers, squabbling with them, and vice versa. Anti-fans of Thatcher burned effigies of her when she died. Anti-fans of Corbyn call anyone still in the Labour party fans of an anti-Semite and dedicate hours to attacking him and his supporters.
Politics is also now the home to toxic fandom – where fans develop a sense of entitlement so strong that they feel that they should be controlling the show. People who feel disappointed by Corbyn or Cameron can rant for as many pages online as Doctor Who fans who reject anything that happened after 1989.
The purest fandom in Britain today was visible in the apparently unlikely stardom of Rory Stewart, an undercard MP in the Tory leadership race. The former international development secretary is an unlikely heart-throb, and reveals one of the slightly strange aspects to fandom. Oddness and camp are usually requirements for politics fandom. People say their favourite talks like a normal person – but it is very rarely true.
His Blairish habit of speaking slowly with lots of pauses and a posh voice, and tendency to enjoy performing on stage or camera, attracted the politically homeless, the media and the sensible centrists early on. But he was swiftly dumped out of the race to be prime minister. He might well be able to build on this early enthusiasm to achieve something more lasting. He knows that his base is what he has, what makes him stand out amongst all the other public schoolboys.
I spoke to two very enthusiastic self-identified Stewart fans – sadly for him, members of the Liberal Democrats who had both just finished school. “He’s competitive, soft, attractive,” said one. “Truly sincere as well,” said the other. “A lot of the candidates have very tactical campaigns, whereas Rory just wants to speak to the members.”
During his bid for the Tory leadership in the summer, Stewart offered to meet people at pretty much any time and anywhere. Now, he is keeping in touch with fans and promising to start some sort of new movement in future. Not many politicians do let the public speak to them outside of Q&A sessions at hustings, formal events and constituency surgeries, and rarely visit smaller cities and towns. Farage is an exception to this, and so is Stewart.
It is not just about holding rallies and going to conventions, though. Trump, Farage and Stewart all know the value of a rally. But there is such a thing as a bad rally. I went to one in Sheffield organised by the breakaway group of MPs originally called The Independent Group. It was held in a hipster wedding venue on the outskirts of the city, with about 40 people in attendance.
The former Labour MP Chris Leslie and former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston were the biggest names. Ex-Conservative Anna Soubry appeared via video to muted applause. We were handed free t-shirts, featuring the black lines from the party’s logo but no words – something of a barrier to publicity. Their battle bus outside was covered in competing slogans.
This group made the mistake of thinking widespread media support and the profile they had from their previous parties would translate into votes. They didn’t realise their fans were for an idea of pro-Remain centrism, not them, and they were unable to make events or a fandom to sustain them.
They are not the only ones. Liz Truss, now the Trade Secretary, tries very hard, doing kooky photo shoots with the Mail on Sunday and appending far too many hashtags to her wannabe-iconic Twitter and Instagram posts. But, so far, she just comes across as desperate.
The manual for political fandom, if not necessarily success, in politics is The Blair Revolution, by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle. Published in 1996, its prescription transfers remarkably well into 2019.
- Recruit new members and try to become a mass-membership party.
- More direct democracy and power for grassroots party members, “rather than unrepresentative groups of activists”.
- More campaigning and socialising than meetings and minutes – we live in the era of the rally and the selfie.
- The leadership must lead and “persuade the party along with it”.
Corbyn and his internal cheering section Momentum have gone for all four points wholesale. Farage has taken a similar approach, but since leaving UKIP and leading the Brexit Party has dispensed with membership in favour of donors and motivated supporters who pay a small amount to attend events. Much more Trumpian and fandom-friendly. Rory Stewart is showing signs of wanting to build his own mass movement to counter Boris Johnson’s – and has already made Disraeli references to match Johnson’s fandom.
The Lib Dem Surge is giving it a good go, borrowing Ed Miliband’s cheap supporter scheme to boost their data-gathering and leafleting base – though the ability of the leadership to lead the party is rather circumscribed, due to the party’s making policy via conference. Lib Dem activists love being Liberal Democrats, identifying as liberal and adore process (and, as it happens, Doctor Who).
In addition to the points made in The Blair Revolution, memorable slogans, good graphic design, relatable visual content, campness, eccentricity and a willingness to speak directly to voters on streets and online produce the category of “political realness” that Rory Stewart, Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn have recently occupied and gained from. The latter two also require a well-briefed team of outriders and big-name fans to provide the charisma and glamour that they sadly lack.
People often deny that they are fans of politics, but it’s just like with football – if you’re into it, you are one. You back your team even if they’re playing badly and you hate the manager and half the players.
That’s not “too partisan” or “the tragedy of partisanship”, it’s fandom and rational behaviour. That’s why most people who say they feel politically homeless also feel so isolated and hurt and do not run straight into the arms of another party. They’re just sad with Labour or the Tories right now.
It’s just like “Rosefen”, the fans who got into Doctor Who to watch the adventures of the Doctor (preferably the Tenth, played by David Tennant) and his companion Rose (played by Billie Piper). There are lots of eras of the show, with different characters and types of stories, and it’s as reasonable to just be into one or two of them or just prefer the one you liked first (there is, after all, only one Tom Baker). You can be sci-fi homeless when the current era of TV doesn’t fit your preferences, just as you can be politically homeless when there’s no party or candidate you really want to support.
Fandom does change the dynamics of politics: political debates are more likely to be screaming matches. And the unequal power relationships inherent to fandom can be abused. Vulnerable people of all ages and genders get hurt.
Now that everything is clipped, quoted and shared – often with the addition of snarky commentary – you can get worked up by something written or produced for an audience that is not and was never meant to be you.
You will also see the same link 100 times on your feed with similar cries of outrage or support. That just makes people love the things they love and hate the things they hate even more. Vaguely don’t like the new Star Wars films? Your social media feeds will show you a hundred hot takes saying why they’re awful and why those characters are just wrong for the franchise. Love Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor? So many beautiful GIFs and memes show why we stan a sharp, witty queen, while there are so many tragic losers on the #NotMyDoctor tag.
So it is with FCKBORIS (self-explanatory) and JC4PM (Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister), FBPE (follow back pro-EU) and MAGA (Make America Great Again). Everyone has the stories and characters they prefer or love to hate, and social media just reinforces that.
The effects are massive – and felt by all. Johnson and Corbyn have significant cushions of superfans that will defend more or less anything. Likewise Remain and Leave. It acts as a shock absorber for radical speech and radical action.
That is why a prime minister can flirt with breaking the law, as Johnson now openly does. Fandom is here and it’s real, whether you go to conventions or not.
Photography by Getty Images