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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 is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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