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Milo Yiannopoulos: the chameleon who enthralled the alt right

How a former tech blogger broke America – and became a hero to angry young white men.

Who is Milo Yiannopoulos? This is both a journalistic and a philosophical question. The first answer is that he is an editor of the fringe right-wing website Breitbart – formerly led by Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon – who was banned from Twitter for his involvement in the harassment of an actor in the Ghostbusters reboot. When he was booked to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on 1 February, a demonstration against him led to smashed windows and to Donald Trump tweeting: “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence [sic] on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Publicity such as this is nectar to Yiannopoulos. His forthcoming book, Dangerous, has done brisk business as a result of the tweet and is now at the top of Amazon’s political humour chart.

Yiannopoulos has emerged as the “alt-right” movement’s thirstiest self-promoter, carefully flirting with bigotry for clicks. When “Gamergate” began, he appointed himself the king of an online vigilante army, defending video games from feminists who wanted plausible storylines and better underwiring for female characters. This was despite his frank admission that he didn’t play them himself. There was, however, some mysterious quality that made him more of a “gamer” than women who had spent their whole career in the industry. (My mistake: it wasn’t a mysterious quality. It was the ownership of a penis.)

Getting the attention of Trump – to whom he refers as “Daddy” – was probably the highlight of Yiannopoulos’s life. The Gamergate episode shows just how well adapted he is for success in our media ecosystem. To paraphrase the US journalist Matt Taibbi, he is a vampire squid, relentlessly jamming his blood-funnel into anything that smells of notoriety.

He is also unhindered by principles, shame or the desire to be consistent. He has said almost uncountable appalling things, then insisted either that he did not mean them or that some aspect of his identity made them OK. For example, he once wrote about how “preening poofs in public life” made it harder for “regular young gay people”. But he is gay, so what’s the harm?

Similarly, when a blogger suggested that he was anti-Semitic, he referred to being Jewish himself. (He has also claimed to be Catholic.) He has been the subject of magazine profiles mixing the ostensible condemnation of his views with the titillation of being so close to a “bad boy”. He’s the easiest baddie that a journalist will ever nail because he plays up to it, revelling in his pantomime villain persona. Before it was suspended, his Twitter handle was @nero (he also maintained a secret account, @caligula). And why not? All this calculated offensiveness brings in more money, more fame, more armies of fans. Critics get wrapped up in whether he means what he says, when it doesn’t matter: the effect does.

However, there is a reason why Yiannopoulos – educated at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, Kent until he was expelled – is now plying his trade in the US. A large number of British journalists remember his previous incarnation. Before he was a “provocateur”, he was a failed tech blogger with a vindictive streak and a poor record with money.

Yiannopoulos got his first break as Bianca Jagger’s speechwriter and was part of the Telegraph blogs squad put together by Damian Thompson, now the editorial director of the Catholic Herald, which also included James Delingpole and Dan Hodges.

He is an adept chameleon and has had three names already. Born Milo Hanrahan, he briefly traded under “Milo Andreas Wagner” before settling on a surname taken from his Greek grandmother. (As Wagner, he wrote a 2007 book of poetry called Eskimo Papoose, featuring lines such as “I shall not be your passive victim/Buggering my way to freedom/On white linen wings”. He now describes it as a work of satire. Of what, it’s hard to say.)

His reputation in Britain was sustained by pettiness. When the tech site that he founded, the Kernel, racked up thousands of pounds in unpaid bills, he told one contributor that she was “behaving like a common prostitute” in wanting to be paid. Another, Jason Hesse, won a high court order for unpaid wages in 2013. (After the Kernel was sold to German investors, others were also paid.) And when the Guardian’s Charles Arthur complained that the Kernel was using his photo without permission, Yiannopoulos sent over an intern with £60 in pennies.

After that incident, James Ball – now at BuzzFeed – wrote, “People in both tech and the media are frightened of Milo: he’s a man they discuss in DMs [direct messages], not open Twitter (or open anything).” That is still true. Everyone who criticises him knows that they risk a backlash from his fans, and that oh-so-postmodern ironic harassment feels just like the real thing.

So perhaps it’s time to say: sorry, America. We gave you the Beatles, but not all of our exports can work out. 

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 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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