Why Are The UK’s Political Memes So Much Better Than Australia’s?
Are Australian politicians to just too boring?
Today citizens of the UK will be voting in their third national election in just two years.
The latest polls suggest Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party will be comfortably re-elected for another five-year term, but Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has well and truly exceeded expectations and increased his party’s vote by 10 percentage points in the last few months.
UK politics has been a bit of a hot mess over the past couple of years (and coming from an Australian that really means something). The country went through an incredibly divisive referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. The pro-Brexit forces ended up securing a narrow majority but the country has been through some heavy political upheaval since.
First up, most of the politicians involved in initiating Brexit ran away, leaving May carrying the can. Then, in order to deal with the confusion and uncertainty, as well as try and capitalise on Corbyn’s apparent unpopularity, May decided to call an early election.
Even if the Conservatives pull off an expected victory, there’s a strong view that May hasn’t exactly impressed. On the other hand, Corbyn’s bold economic policies — including increasing taxes on the rich and abolishing university fees — have energised plenty of young voters.
But there’s another element to the campaign that’s made it more interesting than usual, and it stands in stark contrast to Australian elections.
The UK’s Election Memes Are Just Wonderful
One of the highlights of this campaign has been watching the transformation of Jeremy Corbyn from serious Labour leader to cheeky and highly memeable British lad.
— Jeremy Corbyn for PM (@JeremyCorbyn4PM) April 20, 2017
roses are red
politics is gory pic.twitter.com/LiqijmBqaT
— ️ ️ ️ ️ ️ ️ ️ ️️ ️ (@ultrxlana) August 13, 2016
— Andrew Jones (@andrewj2009) May 15, 2017
Loving the new #grime4corbyn initiative, connecting to young voters!
STEP 1: REGISTER TO VOTE.
STEP 2: WIN TICKETS.
— Pez (@pezzativity) May 15, 2017
"So Charlie got the Chocolate factory, and he found out that they paid NO CORPORATION TAX" pic.twitter.com/EFpizJIChA
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) April 21, 2017
If we pivot away from standalone Jezza memes, and look at the ones offering a side-by-side comparison of each party leader, it’s pretty clear the people pumping out the memes have a clear preference.
you vs the prime minister they tell you not to worry about pic.twitter.com/HDgu18Lvo1
— Abby Tomlinson (@twcuddleston) April 21, 2017
May has never really fared well in the meme wars, but it was after she gave an incredibly weak answer in an interview this week that the meme-wheels really fell off.
When May was asked what was the “naughtiest” thing she had ever done, she replied “I have to confess, when me and my friend, sort of, used to run through the fields of wheat – the farmers weren’t too pleased about that.”
It’s not just an incredibly boring answer, it’s an incredibly boring answer designed to be memed. And, of course, it was.
theresa may after running through a wheat field pic.twitter.com/IlNOChOWg3
— alex (@tangerinetearss) June 6, 2017
— Tim (@CookPassTim) June 6, 2017
Theresa May's crop circle from when she ran in a wheat field pic.twitter.com/T1607cVkPj
— Olly (@YourstrulyOlly) June 6, 2017
There are two main takeaways from the UK’s current political meme culture. The first is that’s incredibly pro-Corbyn, and anti-May. And the pro-Corbyn element goes deeper than just “He’s not the evil conservative who will cut education and health”. There’s a genuine streak of adoration for Jezza, which is perhaps due to his relaxed and charming style of engagement juxtaposed against his relatively radical policy agenda.
The second takeaway is that most of the memes, especially the good ones, aren’t being generated by party staff, but by the voters. It reflects, to some degree, a genuine engagement with this election and the issues being talked about.
The Australian Experience
Let’s be honest. Australian political memes are…. not good. Most of them are cooked up by political staffers and they tend to be overly earnest and cringey. Think the “ALP Spicy Meme Stash”, run by Labor people, or “Innoative and Agile Memes” run by the Liberal aligned folk.
The Australian Manufacturing Worker’s Union was far and away the most successful third party to get in the meme game, particularly through their use of the Dat Boi/Bill Shorten meme:
— The AMWU (@theamwu) May 15, 2016
But outside of political party HQ and the AMWU, it was slim pickings. The now defunct “Below The Line Memes For Big Dick Teens” Facebook page continually served up gold, but unlike the UK’s pro-Corbyn memes they tended to be non-partisan and about the political system more generally. You can check out some of their highlights here.
Looking back on the 2016 Australian election and comparing it to the huge amount of memes coming out of the UK right now, it seems like there has to be a reason for the big discrepancy.
Is Australian Politics Too Boring?
A friend of mine, who has experience with both Australian and British cultures, suggested the answer was simple: the Brits are funnier than Aussies. It could be that simple, but for the sake of patriotism it’s worth looking at whether there’s something else going on.
Oh, and before you bring up different sized populations, while the UK is about three times the size of Australia, the number of memes being pumped out can’t be explained by simple demographic differences. The UK has been producing way more memes per capita than Australia, and the quality is just orders of magnitude better.
Last year Emma Balfour explained Australia’s nascent political meme culture this way: “Our memepool is so insular that party politics has found yet another fucking space to exist, with the same shitty infighting as every other section of politics. And because these pages are run by people who are both highly politically literate and have high meme literacy, it becomes almost inaccessible to the general public.”
It’s hard to disagree. But contrast that to the UK memes, particularly the pro-Corbyn ones. They’re funny and relatable because Corbyn seems much more genuine about his beliefs and values than most Australian politicians. They don’t rely on you having incredibly niche knowledge about politics. The formula is basically 1. Corbyn is a nice guy with cool policies, especially for young people, and 2. Here he is doing funny stuff, what a loose unit.
It seems simple but it only works because he’s managed to engaged a younger constituency that have recently been disengaged from UK politics. In Australia the Labor Party doesn’t need to spend as much energy focusing on younger voters. Because of compulsory voting, and the fact that young people tend to vote for progressive parties, Labor can generally take their votes for granted.
But in the UK Corbyn needs to give young people a reason to vote. That’s part of the reason he’s put so much time and energy into courting their votes and it’s why he’s happy to be hand-fed Pringles:
— Mark Pickering (@pickersplayspop) May 31, 2017
It’s to difficult to see Shorten acting the same way. Corbyn has played to the youth constituency, partly because his policies already align with the values of younger voters but partly because he’s had too. And they’ve responded with love and memes.
But because Australia’s political system forces the major parties to focus on older, swinging voters they end up spending their energy trying to look as boring and uncontroversial as possible. It’s not good meme material.
Corbyn’s approach looks likely to deliver him something more tangible than a swag of dank memes though. The Grime4Corbyn movement is essentially a practical manifestation of the same dynamic. The grassroots campaign is encouraging high-profile grime artists to help get out the vote and energise younger disenfranchised voters to back Corbyn.
Hugely popular rapper Stormzy has popped up on posters in one of London’s most marginal seats encouraging young people to swing the election. It’s not just about Labour vs. the Conservatives. A new demographic is getting politically engaged specifically due to Corbyn’s policy agenda.
It’s a lesson Australian politicians could learn if they want to make people feel excited about politics, rather than perpetually disappointed and depressed. But since our political system lets the major parties take younger voters for granted, it’s unlikely to be a lesson they learn anytime soon.
In the meantime, long live Jezza Corbyn (even if he’s probably going to lose).
Feature image via Tumblr