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People who accuse others of "virtue signalling" are trying to stigmatise empathy

The phrase is devious political propaganda.

The phrase “virtue signalling” is a slur and it is everywhere; it is part of the Trumpian scream. Empathy, fellowship, society, love? To the critic of the “virtue signaller”, they are all vanity, whether online, at a protest or at the ballot box. This is psychological projection, but still interesting: where did it come from?

It first appeared in print in the Spectator magazine, in a piece by James Bartholomew in 2015. Bartholomew was the Earhart Foundation senior fellow in social policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA is a neoliberal PR company disguised as a think tank. You will hear IEA men on the BBC arguing – while posing as impartial experts – against the plain packaging of tobacco, for instance.

The Earhart Foundation, meanwhile, was a neoliberal charitable trust, funded by oil money. It bankrolled Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek – the author of The Constitution of Liberty (1960), who also helped to set up the IEA – and many other neoliberal economists who want the state to shrink to the size of an ornamental golf ball.

First, the politics: in his jaunty, “guess-what-I’ve-noticed-y’awl-plain-folks” style, Bartholomew indicated he approves of privatising the NHS; that the minimum wage could be “absurdly high”, especially for the cretins who don’t deserve it; that the foreign aid budget is ineffective; that the Cameron and Osborne administration did too much for “the poor”. Then the slur: it is not enough to state your case; you must also debase your most powerful opponents. He does this, it seems to me, by imagining himself into a hellish parody of an Islington dinner party, and calmly unpicking – or rather inventing – the thoughts of those who inhabit this imaginary world.

So here came the virtue signaller, with his or her implicit affection for the minimum wage, the NHS, and the foreign aid budget. (He does not give much time to rebutting these real beliefs.) The virtue signaller is probably a member of the so-called liberal elite, which is yet another euphemistic slur. It means: an educated person of influence who disagrees with you.

To Bartholomew, the virtue signallers will say they like Mary Beard. They hate 4x4s and the Daily Mail. They like shopping at Whole Foods. Virtue signallers, Bartholomew then declares, are defined by their hatred, which is as furious an act of psychological projection as I can imagine.

Yet I cannot hate him; I cannot hate anyone who reports that he has learned that sometimes people say “Have a great evening” to each other, and is so baffled by their behaviour that he must invent a new category of narcissist to define them. Later, he wrote a further piece praising his initial piece and the invention of virtue signalling:

 

The lack of a phrase obstructed open discussion of what was going on . . . New phrases and words are the opposite of Newspeak. [This is from Nineteen Eighty-Four. By George Orwell. He has read a novel. He is – what? – intellect signalling?] They make expression and argument easier.

 

Open discussion of what is going on? Making expression and argument easier? I would say that what is going on is the debasement of kindness, of empathy and of love – as a concept, and for profit.

If you imagine – and then proselytise – that people cannot love each other, and that community can be dismantled for the benefit of the funders of the IEA, who cares if children smoke cigarettes? To insist that anyone who offers fellowship to a stranger has a narcissistic condition is not making expression and argument easier. It is failing to understand people who are nothing like you; or impugning them.

The phrase is not cultural commentary, then; it is not whimsical; and it did not come from nowhere. It is, rather, and its invention is dedicated to the enrichment of the plutocratic class, the decimation of any surviving welfare state anywhere on Earth, and, eventually I suspect, democracy itself. I hope, when the time comes, there will be a jaunty phrase for that. 

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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