Leader: Lord Ashcroft’s public service

In the demonology of the left, Michael Ashcroft ranks somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. The Conservative peer is still loathed by many as the man who sought, in the words of Peter Mandelson, to “steal the election” in 2010 for David Cameron. Yet since standing down as deputy Tory chairman that year, the self-made billionaire, profiled by Andrew Gimson on page 30, has emerged as a complex figure who defies easy caricature.

A prolific pollster, Lord Ashcroft has published detailed research in the past year on Ukip, the Labour Party, the Corby by-election and the lack of support for the Conservatives among ethnic minorities. Rather than reserving his findings for his own party, he makes them freely available on his website. As he wrote in the introduction to It’s Not You, It’s Them, a recent collection of his psephology, he publishes his research because he likes “to offer new evidence as to how voters see things, and to provoke discussion and debate”. It is a public service for which all parties are grateful.

With a better understanding of voters’ opinions than most elected politicians, the peer now specialises in delivering uncomfortable truths to the Tories. On the day Mr Cameron made his promise of an EU referendum, he warned that Europe “barely registers” on the public’s list of concerns and that it was time to “move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss”. During last year’s Conservative conference, he denounced a poster featuring the slogan “Labour isn’t learning” as “daft” and “juvenile”.

Besides serving as the nation’s pollster-in-chief, he funds ConservativeHome, the website edited by Tim Montgomerie, the non-partisan PoliticsHome and Biteback Publishing, which issues many good books from both left and right. While those Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates who fell victim to his marginal seats operation may never forgive him, he remains a businessman dedicated to reminding politicians that, however much they might wish otherwise, they cannot dissolve the people.

 

Michael Ashcroft. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.