National Service and Cilla Black memes: Do Labour or the Tories have a better TikTok game?

With TikTok now used by over 9 million people in the UK, it’s no suprise major political parties have jumped onto the bandwagon in an attempt to appeal to younger voters.

Social media has been touted as a key battleground in general elections for many years, but having launched in the UK in August 2018, TikTok was only in its infancy during the last poll at the end of 2019.

Political advertising is banned on TikTok, though both parties will be hoping content reaches the right audiences through the app’s complex user algorithms.

Labour launched its account on the app three days before the Conservatives – posting an 11-second video on Thursday evening of leader Sir Keir Starmer declaring: “Change. That is what this election is about.”

Since then, the feed has been a mixture of clips from the party’s campaign trail, brief explainers and, most successfully, memes mocking the Tories and the Prime Minister.

The Conservative Party shared their first TikTok on Sunday morning – a 50-second clip of Rishi Sunak in a white shirt announcing he plans to introduce mandatory national service for 18-year-olds if he returns to Number 10.

In the video, the prime minister begins: “Hi TikTok, sorry to be breaking into your usual politics-free feed”.

Tiktok is now used by over 9 million people in the UK (Getty)
Tiktok is now used by over 9 million people in the UK (Getty)

Mr Sunak’s national service pledge has become fodder for memes on Labour’s page.

A post with over two million views and more than 316,000 likes, captioned “Rishi Sunak announcing national service”, sees Lord Farquaad, the diminutive chief antagonist of the 2001 film Shrek, announce: “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

Another similarly popular clip depicts “Rishi Sunak turning up on your 18th birthday to send you to war”, with a viral video of late TV host Cilla Black singing her 1980s track “Surprise Surprise”.

Social media experts believe Labour’s “savvier” social media team has so far come out on top on the app, while the Conservatives’ launch on the video has been branded “pathetic”.

Kate Dommett, Professor of Digital Politics at the University of Sheffield said: “The Conservative’s videos look very prerecorded, don’t look natural and are not keeping with the platform’s aesthetic.

“Human content is needed for TikTok, and Rishi Sunak was apologising for being a politician – that won’t work well at all.”

“The Labour Party are doing well by playing into voter frustrations and it’s much easier to do that with irreverent content on TikTok, whereas the Conservative Party are attempting to have serious policy conversations on the social media, and that just doesn’t work.”

TikTok was only in its infancy during the last UK general election in 2019 (PA Wire)
TikTok was only in its infancy during the last UK general election in 2019 (PA Wire)

Prof Dommett added that it is unlikely the two parties are are attempting to persuade voters on the app and doubted posts on the platform would have any real impact on voter turnout and choice.

Chris Stokel-Walker, author of TikTok Boom: The Inside Story of the World’s Favourite App, believes Labour have made the best use of the platform so far – describing Tory efforts as “soulless and lifeless”.

“It’s pretty clear that Labour have a savvier social media team who have pretty effectively managed to minimise the Tories’ claims, not least their clever way of adopting memes to try and rubbish Rishi Sunak’s policy of national service,” he said.

“Meanwhile, for someone meant to be tech-savvy, Sunak’s TikTok presence has been pretty pathetic: not only are the videos pretty soulless and lifeless, but they seem to ignore the fact you have to grab viewers’ attention right from the off, instead going ponderously through the Tories’ lines to take on various policies.”

Labour has more than 78,000 TikTok followers to the Convervatives’ 24,300 and they have received significantly more likes on the platform – with more than 1.5 million to 175,000 for the Tories.

But it is Nigel Farage, Reform UK’s honorary president, who has taken advantage of the app most so far. He is the most followed British political figure on the platform with nearly 600,000 followers.

Last month, the Labour Party hired a dedicated employee to seek influencers for social media sites, including TikTok. It is unclear whether the Conservative’s have done the same.

The Chinese app was banned from Government phones in March 2023 due to data security concerns. However, some politicians, such as defence secretary Grant Shapps, still have active accounts managed on other devices.