The first in my series of Q&As from the Twittersphere of DIY Politics is with @Rachael_Swindon. Her account has grown from 550 followers in December 2015 to 44,700 today – a staggering 8000 percent increase in under two years.
DIY Politics in the UK
Rachael has no background in politics, whatsoever. Raised in a "staunchly Conservative household," she left home at 16 years old and worked her way up from a newsagent to a manager of several stores for a national chain. It wasn’t until she’d had two children and her husband could no longer work, due to illness, that Rachael began to engage in politics. They’d lost their house and sold most of their possessions – that was Rachael’s political awakening. Where was the safety net?
Rachael started up on Twitter in 2014 with no political motives, though she had first voted for the Labour party in 2005, mainly "to keep the Tories out." While having always been left-leaning, for her, it is "more a case of what seems right and what seems wrong."
No blue tick accompanies her profile on Twitter, but she has more followers than many political commentators, some entire news outlets and was the 21st most influential tweeter during the 2017 British general election. She was ahead of news outlets such as BBC Breaking News, the Independent, Channel 4 News and ITV News, and was ahead of political individuals including then-Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Foreign Secretary and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the political editor of ITV News Robert Peston, and even the Prime Minister herself. Prophetically, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn topped the list.
Rachael, hi, you've got quite a following on Twitter. What do you put this down to?
I think the growth of my account coincided with the improbable rise of Jeremy Corbyn. I started creating my own memes, focused on Conservative MPs who voted to cut Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for sick and disabled people despite their own excessive and often immoral expense claims. I tweeted the MPs, asking them to explain why they voted (for the cuts) yet found it perfectly ok for the taxpayer to pay their partner's wages, or for us to buy them TVs, stay in the Savoy hotel or (buy) luxury beds. Why should we be buying this stuff? I understand running costs, but I also understand accountability and the lack of it.
With so many followers and such an emotive atmosphere in the political scene of Twitter, do you feel a sense of responsibility when you post?
I don't feel like I have any major responsibility when I post. I'm not a leader, I'm just one voice amongst many others, worth no more or less than anyone else's opinion. I rarely hold back and try to say things exactly how I see it.
Obviously, your presence online, your tweets, and your opinions aren't going to be liked by everyone. Have you been subject to any abuse or smears? What's the worst?
I'm definitely a troll magnet! People are fully entitled to disagree with me; I disagree with myself often enough but some people take it way too far. I've been called everything from a benefit cheat — right-wing fabrication — to a tax-avoider. I've had threats of rape, malicious phone calls ... it's been relentless to the point of police involvement. (Rachael goes on to tell me about a smear campaign focused on stating she was actually her husband tweeting as her).
Your Twitter bio states you've been blocked by 85 Conservative MPs; what did you do to deserve that?
The last count was 85, although this was 3-4 months back. They block me because they can't stand the prospect of accountability in politics. I'm purposely not rude to them, that won't achieve anything. But, like everyone else, I expect accountability from those elected to represent us, before (representing) their corporate donors.
On the flip side many of your posts — on the stats alone — are hugely popular. Your pinned tweet has 25.1 thousand Retweets and 12.4 thousand Likes. That's huge. Social media has been quite a driving force for the left; even Corbyn's name on the leadership ballot came about through two women on Twitter starting a petition, as has the engagement with young people.
The tweet you refer to is an interesting one. For a couple of weeks after that, I started gaining 200-300 followers every day. That one tweet has 2.8 million impressions and I'm proud of that. I think "Lissted" had me as the second most influential female tweeter during the 2017 general election campaign, which seems absolutely bizarre. I'm just a ranting mum with two young children and a disabled husband, who's felt the very sharpest of seven years of Tory cuts.
What do you think has made this success?
I think the success on social media has come about for a couple of reasons. Corbyn is the first real left-wing Labour leader that I can remember. This immediately differentiates him from the conveyor belt of neoliberal preachers that we've been served up time after time from both sides of the house. They're not "all the same" any longer. Lots of people on the left have been politically homeless and Jeremy welcomed them in, and with that has come an honest enthusiasm to seek real change.
And now we are seeing the right attempt to imitate that success. Two examples are Moggmentum and Activate. They say imitation is a form of flattery, but do you think, in turn, it could prove competitive opposition to the likes of Momentum and "DIY Politicians" like yourself?
I'm not sure who thought up Moggmentum, but do they really think younger people will embrace a multi-millionaire elitist who has views and beliefs that have earned him the nickname "The Honorable Member for the 18th Century"? Never. And Activate? I hope they keep it going; it's the funniest thing on Twitter for ages.
I'm not a Momentum member, but their efforts in supporting Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are to be applauded. Real grassroots support is priceless on social media; it can't be put together (by interns) at the Conservative headquarters
I wanted to get some personal views from you too. The EU Withdrawal Bill was voted for by a 22-seat majority this week. What are your thoughts on this and what it means for the United Kingdom?
I voted Remain in the EU referendum, and I would again. But my own thoughts are broadly in line with Labour policy. As it stands we are leaving the EU. Labour has put forward a sensible proposal that's designed to protect workers’ rights and get the best possible deal for Britain. A Tory hard Brexit will cost us jobs and growth.
On Monday, Sept. 11, Myron Ebell, the head of Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency transition team, appeared on the U.K.'s Newsnight program. Scientists, meteorologists and environmental experts have all said the recent hurricanes, in particular Irma, are unprecedented. It's the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Cuba in almost 100 years; twinned with Hurricane Jose, it's the first time there has been two 150 mph hurricanes in the Atlantic at the same time; and it was the strongest storm in the Atlantic ever recorded, with 37 hours of 187 mph winds. Despite this, Myron Ebell continued, on Newsnight, to label the scientific consensus on climate change as "phony." Do you think either the U.S. or the U.K. are doing enough on the issue of climate change?
Theresa May's commitment to climate change can be measured by her recruitment of Michael Gove as environment secretary, who himself has voted against measures to prevent climate change. (They) take killing wildlife more seriously (in reference to the recent extension to badger culling despite no evidence for its success).
Lastly, you shared a teleSUR article recently on the U.N.'s condemnation of the U.K.'s Conservative government's record on the rights of disabled people. It's a growing problem at the moment and one you post about often. You, an ordinary member of the public, have strengthened your ability to hold the government and MPs to account because of social media; do you feel there have been direct results achieved on the back of the public shaming of MPs that occurs on Twitter? Your hard-hitting memes are a prime example.
Yes. Some might argue the constant public shaming of MPs could filter through to the electorate. Zac Goldsmith (Conservative MP) had to step down as the patron of a disability charity after it was revealed he voted to cut ESA. With so much information available at our fingertips, the appetite for accountability has grown, and rightly so.
Thank you for answering with so much passion, Rachael. Before ending, what do you want to ultimately achieve through your social media profile?
My end goal is clear. I want the Conservatives removed from office. I have no personal ambitions, looking after my family matters more than anything. I truly believe a Corbyn-led government will help me do that.