British politicians have ditched TikTok. Nigel Farage is moving in

LONDON — When teenage boys are taking time away from creating football and “Call of Duty” videos to make memes in praise of a political party repped by a 59-year-old Brexiteer, you know something strange is happening.

At first glance, the success of an insurgent party promising to shake up British politics on TikTok, a platform most popular with younger generations, might seem unremarkable.

But Reform UK’s fiery rhetoric about migration and culture wars — bigged up by its pugnacious president Nigel Farage — feels like an odd fit for an app dominated by dance videos and gaming news.

Yet with almost 47,000 followers, nearly 600,000 likes and millions of video views, Reform UK is by far the most successful U.K. political party on the app.

By comparison, the left-leaning Green Party has a following of 27,000 — but hasn’t posted since late January. Its last two videos failed to break the 1,000 views mark.

The governing Conservative Party, main opposition Labour Party and challenger Liberal Democrats don’t even have official channels on the controversial app — with parody accounts the first to surface when users search for the big three.

Reform’s emergence to fill the vacancy seems to have caught even party insiders off guard.

“When we first went on to TikTok our views weren’t too good — but as we’ve grown as a party nationwide, the views have rocketed way ahead of any other platform and that’s surprised us because the demographic on TikTok is predominantly 15-to-24 year olds,” says Reform press officer Matt Stevens, responsible for running the party’s account on the app.

But, he argues, young people are “crying out for change” after years of the Conservatives — the party Reform is most likely to cause headaches for at this year’s general election.

Farage, Reform’s co-founder and honorary president, has been key to building Reform’s TikTok profile. He appeared late last year on the reality show “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” precipitating a surge in support on his own personal account, and by extension pushing Reform further into the TikTok spotlight. Stevens says this resulted in the party piling on 25 percent more followers than usual during Farage’s time in the Australian jungle.

Farage is one of only a handful of U.K. politicians who have found success on the app.

Left-wing Labour MP Zarah Sultana has grabbed a huge following as a result of her direct, engaging video updates about her parliamentary work, while Defense Secretary Grant Shapps — a Cabinet stalwart who has held numerous government jobs — built up a significant audience by leaping on the popular video formats that dominate the app. A recent clip about the government’s energy strategy mimicked the graphics, font and music of the hugely popular video game “Grand Theft Auto.”

Labour MP for Coventry South Zarah Sultana | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Shapps’ ability to score W’s (that’s wins for those who aren’t down with the kids) is unusual. Most other fledgling Westminster influencers have dead accounts, either because they struggled to keep up with the idiosyncratic and constantly evolving trends that drive engagement, or deleted TikTok amid security fears about its Chinese links which engulfed Westminster last year, and saw the app banned on government-issued phones and networks.

That hasn’t stopped TikTok becoming a hub for political debate and conversation among the broader U.K. user-base. And many key influencers are politically-engaged people outside the traditional Westminster media bubble.

One of this group is Harry, better known by his TikTok username “thechampagne_socialist.” He started the account as part of a university project, and has seen it explode in popularity as an increasingly engaged audience looks for hot takes and analysis on what’s happening in U.K. politics.

“When TikTok became a really big thing in 2020, I thought: ‘What is this shit app? Why would would anyone want to do it?’” he tells POLITICO. “And then I got TikTok.”

Harry has grown his audience to 161,000 followers in the last three years, and has seen TikTok evolve to become a de-facto search engine for many younger people in the way that X continues to draw in older audiences combing for political hot takes.

“It’s a fantastic tool and it’s easy to produce stuff,” he says. “Editing content on YouTube feels like you need a degree, but everything is there that you need for TikTok. If you need a green screen you’ve got that feature, you can add in subtitles very easily. … In terms of accessibility, that has been key to my success and I think it helps people who aren’t necessarily tech savvy.”

The drivers of Reform’s success on the platform seem simple — if counterintuitive. Its videos are crude — landscape-formatted in a world of vertical. They are largely devoid of the memes, trends or sounds that typically drive popularity on the app. In fact, much of their content is ripped from TV interviews given by Leader Richard Tice, which are then shared by fan accounts or other supporters on the app.

Rather than being compelling viewing, the real key to their success appears to be that the party is pretty much the only player on the field.

Sophia Smith Galer, a journalist and broadcaster who has built a massive following on the app, says the party’s success remains modest given the potential for growth.

“I know [their follower numbers] feels like a lot, but in terms of being a presence on TikTok it’s nothing,” she says. “There are people who get that amount of followers from two viral videos. So it might seem like a big number. And certainly, if you are concerned about right wing populism growing in the U.K, I think any number looks concerning.”

“I’m not here thinking they are doing a particularly terrific job,” Galer adds. “But if other politicians don’t get on TikTok they are not going to be able to control any narrative about them on the app.”

‘Not where our voters are’

For now, Reform’s rivals don’t seem too concerned about its TikTok ascent.

Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

A digital strategist from Conservatives, granted anonymity to speak freely, explained the party had made an active decision to eschew the app because it “just isn’t where our voters are.”

The Tories have large followings on X and Facebook, and the strategist said the party had seen how Labour Leader Keir Starmer tried to build a profile on Meta-owned X alternative Threads last year — only to give up after a few posts.

“We’ve learned from that, we don’t want to do one of those,” they said. “Basically, we just want to be quite methodical about the place we already are.”

The strategist dismissed concerns about Reform’s success on TikTok — arguing the Farage-backed party will hit a ceiling of support because of its low production values.

“Some of their videos do get a bit of traction when they are talking about migration issues, but it doesn’t really look like they are thinking about it very seriously,” they said. “A lot of their videos are in landscape — they’ve just been lifted from their other channels and dumped on there.”

But Ben Guerin, co-founder of the digital strategy firm Topham Guerin, credited with helping deliver Boris Johnson’s 2019 election landslide, warns it’s “negligent” for any party to ignore the app.

He points to the firm’s success on the platform in last year’s New Zealand election, where they helped deliver 17 million views for the National Party and its Leader Chris Luxon — eclipsing the 1.3 million views achieved by the country’s Labour Party. Luxon is now prime minister. It’s proof, Guerin says, that right-wing parties can secure big wins with younger demographics.

“This is an election where we had an old white man, a bald guy who is on the right side of politics, achieve 75 percent of all those views among 18- to 35-year olds,” Guerin recalls. “We were able to prove that the right can actually win younger voters when you talk to people where they are and in the language that they’re using.”

The digital gurus say their success on the app was down to having a proper strategy, including tracking popular meme formats that bubble up, and planning a fun and engaging way to adapt them to a party’s message.

That’s crucial on a platform which has expressly banned political advertising or paying influencers to push a message.

“The problem with a lot of political communications is everyone’s trying to mitigate risk,” he says. “And you end up with something so polished that it just doesn’t connect with people and a lot of what we do is we try to help our clients … to do stuff that feels authentic on the platform, without completely throwing caution to the wind.”

‘This started out as a joke’

Reform appears to have another card up its sleeve — good old-fashioned trolling.

Jason, in his mid-20s, owns an account which has posted multiple supportive messages below Reform-related posts on TikTok, thereby boosting its presence. He admitted he had initially “fallen down a rabbit hole” after seeing similar comments while scrolling through his feed, and posted because he enjoyed “winding up” other users.

“Those comments were everywhere — and I used to enjoy watching how angry people would get when someone posted about how they were going to vote Reform,” Jason, who preferred to remain otherwise anonymous to speak freely, told POLITICO in a conversation on the app. “I watched a bunch of videos on other channels about what they are all about — and I’m not really that interested in politics but I guess I see more of their videos on my page now because I’ve shown some interest.”

Yet even this ironic signal-boosting has turned into genuine curiosity about Reform’s plans. “I do think I’ll vote Reform next time and I’ve been speaking about it with my friends and people at work who agree that we need to try someone different,” he says. “I guess this started out as a joke, but now I am actually backing them.”

Reform is unfazed about the prospect that support has come, at least by some measure, from by self-confessed trolls.

“One of the big problems when we first started was brand awareness, so even if some people are doing it as a joke — and I’m sure that’s correct — then they are still talking about us,” says Stevens, the Reform press officer. “And the more that happens the more it helps us because people will see it and go and search for us.”

Guerin, the digital campaigns strategist, says he’d be “very surprised” if more parties don’t jump on the TikTok bandwagon as the election looms — despite the challenges of getting it right. “TikTok is critical for winning the air war, campaigning at the speed of culture, and also for connecting and understanding and empathizing with people in the language that they’re used to,” he says.

Politicians, Guerin adds, “spend so much on focus groups, polling and all the rest of it — but you can get very similar insights by just opening the app.”