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The echo chamber of social media is luring the left into cosy delusion and dangerous insularity

News on Facebook travels through “Likes” and shares, and people won’t Like a crackdown on benefits, even if they secretly support it.

Here’s my melodramatic theory: social media lost Labour the last election and it’s going to lose Labour the next one, too.

It sounds bonkers, doesn’t it? But look at it like this: “political Twitter”, the small subset of the social network that isn’t tweeting about One Direction or surfers being ­attacked by sharks, is undeniably skewed to the left. Twitter probably evolved into lefty heaven as a reaction to the right-wing dominance of the printed press, and because of the many arts and comedy bigwigs who imported their existing followings on to the platform. Most progressive commentators and columnists are on there, tweeting away several times a day, while their right-wing equivalents avoid the service altogether, or venture on very occasionally to share a link to their piece.

Then there’s Facebook, a much bigger fish, which ought to be more reflective of the wider population because it’s made of networks of schoolfriends, former colleagues, and parents and children. But news on Facebook travels through “Likes” and shares, and people won’t Like a crackdown on benefits, even if they secretly support it. A lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” – showing off to your friends about how right on you are.

It was this “Tyranny of the Like” that had many social media users convinced that Ed Miliband could squeak the election; after all, their friends seemed to be lapping up the mansion tax and the action against non-doms. No one seemed enthused about taking £12bn off the benefit bill, or reducing the help given to disabled people.

Partly this is an advanced version of the “shy Tory” phenomenon that has long led pollsters to underestimate the Conservative vote. The late New Labour guru Philip Gould saw it in focus groups conducted in 1985, where women aged 25 to 44 were asked what issues affected them. They named law and order, health, education and variations on the micro-economy. They didn’t give a stuff about Labour’s preoccupations: nuclear disarmament and the role of minorities in society. Gould concluded: “Self-interest was no longer a dirty word; they admitted openly they looked after themselves first.”

Now imagine those same people tweeting or facebooking their thoughts. Would they be as honest and open about their self-interest? I doubt it. They’d be changing their avatar to a rainbow flag, or ostentatiously sharing the touching story of a girl who needs a new wheelchair but can’t ­afford one. And on 7 May, a large percentage of them would have voted Tory.

This summer, as George Osborne slashes tax credits and makes swaths of southern England off limits to anyone on benefits (thanks to the new £20,000 cap), Labour’s attention should turn to the next election and picking a leader who can beat him.

Instead, a large number of constituency parties are nominating Jeremy Corbyn, even though he doesn’t want to be leader, has never held a leadership position in the party and could never find two dozen fellow-travellers to form a shadow cabinet. Clearly, these CLPs don’t think that Corbyn is their best shot at beating Osborne, overturning his unjust policies and enacting Labour ones instead. They are doing it to signal that they are on the side of right and good.

The American writer Matt Bruenig calls this “purity leftism”. As he wrote in 2012, “When purity leftists do actions and organising, their interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it. Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.”

Not all Corbyn supporters are like this. Some are backing him because they think he has the best ideas for the country and want him to challenge the other candidates, or because they admire his many years of ­dedication to his constituents. He is undoubtedly a dogged campaigner, an energetic speaker and a parsimonious public servant.

But I’ve had enough of people describing him as “principled” as if it were a synonym for “holds opinions I agree with”. Liz Kendall, who has been relentlessly called a Tory in disguise – a Facebook Q&A she did was particularly testy on this front – is also principled. If you acknowledge that Corbyn is giving voice to marginalised opinions, you must also acknowledge it takes lady-balls to go to a meeting of Labour activists and say that you support the two-child benefit limit or the 2 per cent defence spending commitment. Kendall is booed at hustings while Corbyn is cheered. Her campaign is faltering precisely because she is saying what she believes.

As it happens, I disagree with her about the two-child limit – in the words of The West Wing’s Josh Lyman, Osborne apparently wants a government just small enough to fit into our bedrooms. But it is undeniably popular with exactly the people Labour was founded to represent.

What Kendall is doing is also more principled – “courageous”, even, in the Yes, Minister sense of foolhardy – than the strategy pursued by Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, who will not attack Corbyn head on because they want anyone who votes for him to put them down in second place.

At a recent Gay Pride march, Burnham wore a T-shirt proclaiming that he’d “never kissed a Tory”. Well, if he wants to win the next election he’s going to have to do a bit more than kiss some Tories. He’s going to have to convince them to vote Labour. (That’s third base, at least, in my book.) Will reaching out to those voters be seen as a betrayal, too?

Ultimately, in the secrecy of the ballot, when there’s no more virtue signalling to be done, Corbyn will fade away. But the country will have taken note of a Labour Party that seems to prefer the purity of opposition to the compromises of power.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times