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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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder