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The politics of aspiration is dead: Laurie Penny on the new, defeatist rhetoric

No political party can now promise social mobility – instead politicians push the rhetoric of revenge.

A curious thing has happened to the terminology of political pleading. It has happened suddenly, as desperate elected representatives across the developed world realise that things are not going to get better, that they have shafted core voters and sold out the king-making middle classes. Over the past few months, the language of aspiration has almost entirely disappeared, replaced with a more patronising dialect of austerity and suffering.

Nick Clegg's new appeal to "Alarm-clock Britain", the hard-pressed lower-middle classes over whose fickle allegiance at the ballot box mainstream parties have been squabbling for 40 years, is couched in the language of sobriety, of knuckling down and weathering the storm, as if the current economic climate were a natural phenomenon rather than a deliberate choice on the part of the political elite to fund the lassitude of the rich at the expense of the poor.

Every political party is doing this, their focus groups and spinsters working overtime to find out what could tamp down the resentment of these newly bitter core constituents. Ed Miliband has already nabbed "The Squeezed Middle", a phrase lifted directly from the Clinton phrasebook. This frantic co-sloganeering makes British parliamentary parties sound a little like teenage boys trying desperately to think up new, cool names for their generic bedroom guitar bands: Squeezed Middle sounds really sick, but that's already taken, so we'll go with Alarm Clock Britain, we can always change it later.

Historically, the way to woo these voters, the voters who are employed, but barely, are solvent, but barely, and who just barely have the sense that politics can work for them, is to appeal to their self-interest. These were the people who voted Tory in 1979 and 1992 because they wanted lower taxes and a party in government that spoke the language of aspiration, the language of social climbing and self-betterment at the expense of others.

"Aspiration", however, has been quietly erased from the political lexicon. This is not because "Alarm-clock Britain" is no longer aspirational, but because there is so little to aspire to any more. No political party now can promise social mobility and any party that reminds the middle classes of the improvements in personal circumstances they were so recently guaranteed is going to have a riot on their hands before the year is – oh, wait.

Instead, the appeal to "Alarm-clock Britain" is being couched in the rhetoric of revenge, focusing on the coalition's punitive benefit cuts for those less fortunate than the lower-middle classes, whose sense of shared social responsibility has been eroded progressively over three decades of anti-welfare propaganda. This approach is the traditional strategy of neoliberal governments in crisis, a direct appeal to the selfish hindbrain, the part that votes for low taxes and bad television, the part that votes for a quiet life, the part that votes to fuck other people over and smile about it afterwards.

This approach has consistently polled positively for centre-right administrations over the past 20 years. The shift away from "aspirational" rhetoric, however, tells us a few very important things. It tells us that the coalition is getting desperate. It tells us that they're going all out to wrench the political conversation away from their recent decision to protect bankers' bonuses and destroy public education and welfare spending, and it tells us that they're frightened they're going to lose the propaganda war. It tells us that those in the know are fully aware that things are going to get worse, possibly much worse, because if any party could promise the king-making lower-middle classes social mobility at the moment, they would be doing it. Most immediately, it tells us that, in all likelihood, Westminster is getting ready for a general election. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.