Who and what is their people? How British political leaders appealed to the people during the 2019 elections

The 2019 UK election was touted by many as a contest between the parliament and the people. But who were ‘the people’ in question? The rise of populist politics in recent years across the world had bought ‘the’ people squarely into political discussion and as a resource to be called on by populist politicians. Looking at twitter in the context of the UK election we can see what was meant in this context.

Table 1 shows some of the information about the use of Twitter by the five leaders during the electoral campaign[1]. Among these, the number of tweets, and the percentage of those with the word ‘people,’ the hashtag use, the length of the tweet text, and the number of retweets. This last data allow us to understand if the tweets have resonated enough to encourage someone to share it with their followers. Data show that Corbyn is the most active leader with a higher percentage of tweets containing the word ‘people’ (15.1%), followed by Swinson (11.3%) and Johnson (10.4%).

LeaderPartyTweets (N)People tweets (%)Hashtag (N)Avg text (N)Avg retweet (N)
Boris JohnsonConservative55010.421179906
Jeremy CorbynLabour75615.1302144121
Jo SwinsonLiberal Democrats20311.322198742
Nicola SturgeonScottish National2124.762532456
Nigel FarageBrexit2088.701541985
Table 1 – ‘People’ in the leaders’ tweets (from 12/10/2019 to 16/12/2019)
Figure 1 – Number of tweet (12 October – 16 December)
Figure 2 -Average number of retweet (12 October – 16 December

Table 2 shows the main issues covered by the leaders’ in their ‘people’ tweets. Among these, the Brexit topic occupies a prominent role. Swinson, for example, reached the highest value among all of the candidates (70.4%), covering the whole electoral campaign related to the opportunity to establish a second referendum to allow the ‘remainers’ another possibility.

Johnson used Brexit (26.4%) to talk mainly about the British priorities in his program: the NHS, security, and education/schools.

While Corbyn was the candidate with the lowest percentage of ‘people’ tweets on Brexit (6.8%), mainly focusing on Johnson’s deal consequences.

LeaderBrexitNHSSecuritySchoolEconomyWork policiesImprove UKRightsOtherN
Boris Johnson26.413.916.715.318.16.92.872
Jeremy Corbyn6.812.2212.36.814.37.538.1a147
Jo Swinson70.418.511.127
Nicola Sturgeon8.316.78.3b5016.712
Nigel Farage201010105020
Table 2- Issues in the ‘people tweets’ (%)

Note: a campaign storytelling; b Improve Scottland.

The NHS issue is mainly a point of concern for Sturgeon (16.7%), the security one was an issue dealt with by the most right-wing candidates, while the economy was central between the two main challengers. The work issue was considered only by Corbyn (6.8%), as well as education by Johnson (15.3%). The generalist issue of ‘how to improve own country’, except for Swinson, was covered by all of the candidates, although for Sturgeon, it has always been about how to improve Scotland.

Another interesting aspect was the issue of rights, namely concerning minorities, disabled, and women, which was the main issue for Sturgeon (50%) and one of the most important topics for Swinson (18.5%). Minor issues, related to the candidates’ programs or strategy, were put in the “other” column. Among these, for example, Farage has repeatedly addressed the terrorism problem, Sturgeon Scotland’s independence, and above all, Corbyn has much emphasized the storytelling of his electoral campaign, focusing on his militants and supporters.

‘People’ is today a neutral term, which only gains a specific connotation when it is properly contextualized. The adjective politicizes the noun by giving it a collective role or a particular identification. Thus, the ‘people’ can mean many different things to many various leaders in many different circumstances. Table 3 is an example of this.

Data show that an important percentage of the term ‘people’ is used generically without any specification by the five leaders, mainly by Farage (64.7%) and Corbyn (46.6%). This means that the people are considered to be one body, and they are often associated with a general interest.

For Johnson, the people also have a strong connotation as having British identification. This means that the ‘British people’ is in at least 36.8% of their tweets, which is an apparent reference to a large, circumscribed, and the defined universe.

‘Young people’ are the prerogative of female candidates, while the workers of men ones, especially in the economic area, for Johnson (22.8%). Corbyn, although he is the only candidate to speak directly about labour problems, rarely refers to workers as ‘people’ in his tweets (1.7%).

However, people are different things for each candidate; the people are amazing and passionate; the people are voters; the people are the weakest, including the sick and the lowest of society; and the people are also ‘other peoples,’ which encompasses the Scots in Sturgeon’s storytelling or the militants and supporters in Corbyn’s tweets.

LeaderGeneric / no specificBritishYoungVotersWorkersAmazingWeakOther peoplesN
Boris Johnson24.636.83.53.522.
Jeremy Corbyn46.
Jo Swinson26.911.546.27.77.726
Nicola Sturgeon101010102040b10
Nigel Farage64.711.85.95.911.817
Table 3 – People’s adjectivation in the ‘people tweets’ (%)

Note: a e.g. members and supporters; b e.g. Scottish people.

To sum up, in these last months, the frontrunner Johnson had a single people to ‘love’, ‘look after’, ‘protect’, and from whom he asks for legitimacy throughout the election campaign. The runnerup Corbyn had more ‘peoples,’ building his whole campaign against someone, the few, to protect the many, continually calling on its militants and supporters to remain united.

Thus while Corbyn looks toward his people Johnson institutionalizes himself having a direct relationship and paternalistic attitude in order to protect and represent the interests of his people.

Now what? The first will guide the UK towards the most critical change in recent years, and the second will face his people in the next crucial party congress, which will mark the end or continuity of his vision. Whatever their people have been, it will be interesting to understand what they will become in the coming months.

* This article reflects only the author’s views and the European Commission or the Research Executive Agency is not liable for any use that may be made of the information contained in such publicity. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no: European Union Grant Agreement number 838418.

[1] In this article are shown the first results of an analysis on this topic conducted during the 2019 UK electoral campaign from 12th October to 16th December on Twitter through the study of the use of the word ‘people’ by the foremost five political leaders.

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