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Rock Around The Tok: Meet the new generation of TikTok MPs

Rock Around The Tok: Meet the new generation of TikTok MPs
6 min read

When Nadine Dorries became Culture Secretary, she probably didn’t imagine she would soon be dropping her first rap on TikTok. Zoe Crowther explores MPs’ relationship with social’s fastest growing platform. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall.

Since the Chinese social media app TikTok launched in this country in 2017, it has taken the nation and the world by storm but remained relatively undiscovered by our political elite – until now.

In recent months, more politicians are starting to take notice, especially since No 10’s launch of the Prime Minister’s official TikTok page last month.

As a platform known primarily for Gen Z sharing viral dance videos, this raises questions as to what politicians should use it for, and whether they should be on it at all.

Some have suggested MPs avoid TikTok, given the pitfalls of an app that values humour and a good sense of rhythm. However, a few trailblazing MPs are trying to prove the naysayers wrong.

Some have been quietly building a sizeable TikTok following, posting videos about their campaigns, taking part in Q&As, and sharing insights into their personal and professional lives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the younger parliamentarians who are taking the lead. Labour’s Zarah Sultana, 28, is the most popular MP on TikTok with more than 319,000 followers.

Affectionately known to her colleagues as the “TikTok Queen”, Sultana won the 2021 Young People’s MP of the Year from the diversity and inclusion charity Patchwork.

She tells The House: “TikTok is really important because of how many young people are on there. Being a young MP, I feel a responsibility to use my platform to raise their issues. I think that’s why I’ve been able to do quite well.”

Sultana admits she’s not a great dancer. Instead, her recipe for TikTok success has been posting a mix of serious political messages and lighthearted snapshots of life outside Parliament: attending Liverpool’s final home game of the season; celebrating Eid; making sushi for the first time.

Her most loyal TikTok fans are her nine-year-old cousins, but her fame extends across members of the younger generation, who she says often approach her in the street after recognising her from the app. Some young people have even told her they quote her TikToks in their school essays.

I’m still relatively cool, which is something that is aspirational as I’m approaching my early 30s.

Sultana is glad her videos resonate with younger viewers: “I’m still relatively cool, which is something that is aspirational as I’m approaching my early 30s. As long as my cousins think I’m all right and not embarrassing, then happy days.”

According to Sultana, TikTok is much more welcoming than other social media apps.

“People aren’t seeking perfection and aren’t expecting you to look 10 out of 10, whereas Instagram has a reputation for [users] posting only your best pictures,” she says.

Although Sultana recognises that in the early days of the app most of her colleagues would have dismissed it as “just for kids”, she believes this attitude is now changing, especially with the arrival of Boris Johnson’s account.

“I was surprised by how long it took No 10 to join TikTok, because I had already seen American politicians using it during the [2020] presidential campaign,” she says.

“TikTok is for everyone, the more the merrier. There are loads of MPs on Twitter – it’s a matter of time until we see the same levels on TikTok.”

According to reports last year, Labour officials had encouraged their MPs to sign up to the app and secure their usernames, following a spate of malicious parody accounts. Sultana, who posted her first video at the beginning of 2021, says she signed up independently, however.

Labour MP and Baby of the House Nadia Whittome, 25, also has a large TikTok following, of almost 42,000, and believes the app acts as an important tool for social and political mobilisation.

“My videos aren’t just reaching the usual suspects who regularly engage with parliamentary politics,” she says, explaining that she often gets comments from viewers surprised she is an MP at such a young age.

My videos aren’t just reaching the usual suspects who regularly engage with parliamentary politics.

“Young people have been using TikTok to politically organise for a few years,” she adds.

One example of this was during Donald Trump’s second presidential campaign, when K-pop (Korean pop music) fans used TikTok to organise a prank where people signed up for his rallies without any intention of attending, leaving him with embarrassingly low turnouts.

On the other side of the Chamber from Sultana and Whittome, Luke Evans, 39, has 20,000 TikTok followers, the highest of any Tory MP. Like Sultana, Evans finds TikTok a much more welcoming environment than apps such as Twitter, where MPs often find themselves victims of abuse and trolling.

He admits TikTok is not where many of his voters are, but instead sees the app as a chance to do research into digital platforms, share educational content and promote his campaigns.

“I got into TikTok because of my work on body image and looking into digitally altered images,” he says. “I wanted to understand the platforms that were out there.

“It’s rewarding and serves a purpose: there’s a gap for me to step into as a lot of people want to know more, including students who are interested in going into politics.”

Evans is not only educating the public, but also his fellow Tories, who, he says, are increasingly approaching him for advice on how to get TikTok-savvy.

Keen senior Conservatives include 53-year-old Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, who asked Evans for guidance before joining the app in December.

Nadine Dorries, 65, is another Cabinet minister who has recently begun to flex her TikTok skills.

She even posted a rap about the Online Safety Bill, which includes such lines as: “Will the Online Safety Bill affect freedom of expression? No! We’ve put in legal protections in the 19th section.”

Dorries’ attempt at youth culture have sparked - some - admiration from followers. Comments on the video include: “Well, I never thought a government minister could actually be interesting to watch,” and “My favourite MP. Multi-talented. Author. Empowering woman. Style. Inspiring.”

It’s rewarding and serves a purpose: there’s a gap for me to step into as a lot of people want to know more.

But as more politicians begin to appreciate the platform’s campaigning potential, Evans warns they should be careful about joining without having a clear reason for doing so.

He says: “Politicians shouldn’t feel the pressure to be on one platform or the other. You should be using your social media as a way of communicating what you’re doing properly.

“Are you explaining policy? Are you talking about who you are? Are you dealing with an issue? Do you want to attack the government?”

Evans’ videos are usually quite upbeat in tone, and his next mission is to film a “collab” with PM Boris Johnson. What does the Conservative MP think about the prospect of becoming a full-time influencer himself? “No, I’m quite happy being a politician – for the moment anyway.”

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