The Houses of Parliament. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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My election predictions, a dismal TV audience and Gillian Duffy’s legacy of duff campaigns

I keep being asked for my election predictions, but I hope I'm wrong.

This has been the least engaging election campaign I can remember. You could sense newspaper editors’ collective sigh of relief when a royal baby arrived to take over the front pages as the final week of campaigning began.

No doubt commentators are right to blame the spin doctors who, mindful of Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale in 2010 (in which he called her a “bigoted woman”), insulated the party leaders from unscripted contact with the public. The loss of journalistic scrutiny of party policies in daily press conferences, which were the centrepiece of campaigns until televised leaders’ debates killed them off, removed a further element of unpredictability.

The biggest problem, it seems to me, has been the electoral arithmetic. Most of us can get our heads round a simple two-way contest: Chelsea v Arsenal, England v Australia, Mayweather v Pacquiao, Labour v Conservative. The growing strength of minority parties ruins the dramatic structure. It is as though a Premier League football match had three or four players from lower leagues on the field, all trying to score goals for their own teams, or, while Lady Macbeth urged her husband to “screw your courage to the sticking-place”, the porter and the physician kept interrupting to offer their views.

The politicians haven’t helped. Most voters want to know what sort of government they will get and what it intends to do. Both Labour and the Tories denied us such enlightenment by implausibly insisting they would not make deals with other parties and would stick to their manifestos, nothing more, nothing less. The result has  been a campaign in which politicians have seemed more remote than ever and nobody has the slightest idea what they are voting for.

 

Tough crowd

The only moments of excitement came from the audience members who cross-examined the three main party leaders on BBC1’s Question Time on 30 April. Most commentators acclaimed them as “the real winners” but I thought that their comments were rude, ignorant, self-pitying, self-righteous and generally dreadful. In a democracy, we, the people, are supposed to be the politicians’ employers. No decent employer would talk to even the most junior employee – or to a job applicant – as these supposedly admirable Yorkshire folk addressed Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. They seemed interested only in grandstanding, probably looking forward to the acclamation of their friends for the mighty achievement of calling somebody a liar. No one asked about rent controls, climate change, Trident or caps on energy price rises. Since Ed Miliband got the roughest ride and the audience seemed obsessed with immigration, the EU and the difficulties of running businesses, I hope to hear no more from the right about “leftist bias” in the BBC’s audience selection.

 

Small business end

The alleged star of the show was Catherine Shuttleworth, who, recalling that Ed Balls described Liam Byrne’s notorious “There’s no money left” note for his successor at the Treasury as a joke, told Miliband that running a small business “is no joke” and, therefore, Balls should be sacked. This was a chain of thought that I struggled to follow. But Shuttleworth, as a small-business owner, is a “wealth creator” and must, therefore, be treated as both wise and virtuous.

As a general rule, I like small businesses and would never dream of buying meat, fish or bread from anything other than a local butcher, fishmonger or baker. But a business isn’t automatically virtuous because it is small. Shuttleworth runs a marketing agency that, according to its website, helps companies with “disrupting shoppers’ journeys”, whatever that means. The clients include Britvic, Shell, KP and Mars, all accused of making and/or selling products that are bad for us. I do not accuse Shuttleworth of doing anything wrong; on the contrary, I admire her for starting this successful business when she had three children under three. But I’m not sure she creates “wealth” exactly and she is certainly not a more valuable member of society than the doctor or teacher who makes people healthier or less ignorant.

 

A coach’s courage

Nobody who follows Leicestershire cricket (unfortunately, there aren’t many of us) will be surprised that the West Indies have revived sufficiently to beat England in a Test match. The team has a new coach, Phil Simmons, who, as a player, helped Leicestershire win the County Championship in 1996 and 1998 (he was unavailable in 1997).

Leicestershire won in 1975 with at least two of the game’s all-time greats: Ray Illingworth, an Ashes-winning England captain, and the Australian fast bowler Graham McKenzie. The winning sides of the 1990s contained nobody you had ever heard of, unless you count Simmons, who played Tests for the West Indies but with little success. He was never officially county captain but no one doubted the influence of his wisdom, enthusiasm and courage – in 1988, his heart stopped when a bouncer hit him on the head – on a team of modest talent. When he was finally, because of injuries, made stand-in captain, the county won six consecutive matches, five of them by enormous margins, to secure the 1998 title.

As Ed Smith wrote in last week’s issue, West Indies cricket is in dire straits. If anybody can revive it, Simmons can.

 

To hazard a guess

I keep being asked for my election predictions, presumably because I correctly predicted in this column the exact result of the Scottish referendum. At the risk of jeopardising my flimsy reputation as a psephological sage, I think (as of mid-afternoon, 4 May) that the Tories will get between 295 and 300 seats and, with Lib Dem support but probably not another coalition, David Cameron will stay in Downing Street. I make this prediction without confidence and in the fervent hope that it is completely wrong. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.