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Beware the clunking fist

Ignore the conventional wisdom. The combination of an improving economy and Gordon Brown’s sheer blo

Conventional wisdom is a poor guide to the future.

At the end of the 20th century, few would have thought that the coming decade would see the election of a black US president, a power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, and the nationalisation of some of Britain’s biggest banks.

Yet, even in the face of such unexpected recent events, we still cling to the notion of political ­inevitability. It is now widely regarded as a certainty that Labour will lose the next election, with the Tories on course to form a large majority in the Commons.

A combination of sleaze, exhaustion and economic meltdown are said to have finished off the Labour government. Gordon Brown is seen as a political corpse. The only question to be decided at the polls, it seems, is the scale of his defeat.

But once more, conventional wisdom could be wrong. Labour might look doomed at the moment, in the febrile atmosphere created by the expenses scandal, but the picture could be very different next summer, if the worst of the charlatans have been kicked out of the cabinet and an economic recovery is under way. Moreover, a number of features of the structure of our political system are likely to benefit Labour in the run-up to the next general election.

Even now, in the midst of crisis, it is not all gloom for the government. On 21 May, Labour won a council by-election in Salford, the seat of the discredited Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, whose conduct over her home allowances has been condemned by Brown as “totally unacceptable”.

Given Blears’s role at the centre of ­Scamalot, the Labour vote in Salford might have been expected to collapse dramatically, but it held up. Meanwhile, the Tory vote dropped, as the party’s candidate was overtaken by both Ukip and the BNP.

Indeed, the Conservatives have not been doing nearly as well in council by-elections as they should be for a party on the verge of government. In one poll at the start of May, in the Rossmere ward of Hartlepool, the Labour vote actually went up, while the Tories were consigned to fifth place.

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair’s third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath – defying conventional wisdom and the polls – defeated Harold Wilson’s government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

Nor do all of Cameron’s target seats appear to be in fertile territory for Conservatism. On the list are places such as Keighley, Dewsbury, Derby North, Rossendale and Dumfries and Galloway. It is difficult to envisage all of them turning blue, especially if the general election next year takes place against a backdrop of improving economic news.

When the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced in the pre-Budget report last year that recovery could start in the autumn of 2009, he was derided for his prediction. But this could be the reality. Such a recovery would not address the appalling state of the public finances, with levels of national indebtedness far worse than at any time in our history.

Yet it is unlikely that the ­question of the national debt will be a deciding factor at the next election. People will be much more influenced by their own job prospects and personal income. Most homeowners lucky enough to be in work have not suffered too badly in this recession because of the dramatic fall in ­interest rates. There is no sign that rates will increase over the coming year.

By next year, the impact of the expenses scandal and the Smeargate fiasco may have faded. All the opinion polls over the past two years demonstrate that Brown’s ratings improve when economic questions predominate. Again in defiance of conventional wisdom, the Prime Minister’s strange political personality might assist in Labour’s revival in the months before the next election.

His combination of bullying, indecisiveness, cowardice and lack of vision have rightly made him despised by large sections of the public. Yet his strongest trait, his aggressive partisanship, currently a vice, could in future become an asset to Labour.

Every decision Brown makes is dictated, not by the national interests, but by his narrow determination to outflank the Tories. This has led him to absurdities like his notorious pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, but some of his negative campaigning may prove more fruitful.

The stark warnings about “Tory cuts” will be pounded home relentlessly over the next 12 months, and this message is bound to find a receptive audience among two key groups of voters: public-sector workers and welfare claimants, both of whom have done comparatively well from Labour rule. Together, these two groups have more than 12 million votes.

Brown’s partisanship will ensure that every aspect of the political system is ruthlessly exploited to Labour’s advantage. Labour’s turnout will be heavily boosted by postal voting, which, as a series of fraud scandals have proved, is open to corruption by agents and activists. One judge, presiding in 2005 over a case involving a municipal postal voting fraud in Birmingham, said the scale of abuses by six local Labour candidates would have “disgraced a banana republic”.

Indeed, the Labour government cynically introduced postal voting on demand without safeguards in 2000 precisely because it knew the party would be the big winner from such a flawed method. At the 2005 election, 6.5 million people voted by post. The figure will be even higher in 2010 and the misrepresentation even worse.

Similarly, the government will indulge in a wealth of feel-good propaganda over the next year, dressing up pro-Labour publicity as consultation and information exercises. Already the government is by far the biggest advertiser in the country, with the Central Office of Information holding a budget of £400m. Marketing by other pro-Labour public-sector organisations will be added to the political spin.

We can expect schools, hospitals, regeneration projects, community groups and Sure Start centres to start putting up signs at their entrances explaining how much the government has recently invested in their sites. In the same way, the £2.3bn regional development agencies, which the Tories have pledged to abolish, will have everything to gain by launching expensive billboard campaigns telling us about wonderful economic success ­stories in their regions.

Conventional wisdom holds that there will be a big anti-incumbency vote at the next election because of public disillusionment over the current House of Commons. But the opposite may be true. Sitting MPs have two great advantages.

First, their casework means that they have had supportive contact with thousands of voters. The huge increase in staffing allowances in the past decade means that they can often employ two or three assistants in the constituency working on behalf of their local public.

In the 1980s, Chris Smith managed to hang on to a wafer-thin majority in Islington South partly through his assiduity in handling an epic volume of casework, most of them housing issues that should really have been dealt with by local councillors. His winning slogan in the 1987 election was: “Everyone knows somebody who’s been helped by Chris Smith.”

This will be a theme taken up by a host of Labour MPs in 2010. The second advantage is the £10,000-a-year communications allowance, which enables incumbents to spread the gospel of their devotion to their constituents through glossy newsletters.

The changing demography of Britain will also help Labour. The phenomenal increase in mass immigration over the past decade has not only transformed the make-up of our urban society, but has undoubtedly been a significant boon to Labour. All studies show that the overwhelming majority of voters in migrant communities tend to vote Labour. Eighty per cent of black voters back the party and at least 60 per cent of Asians.

Tellingly, many of the highest concentrations of ethnic minorities are in the swaths of marginal seats in outer London, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire. According to the campaign group Operation Black Vote, as many as 70 marginals could be decided by black and Asian voters.

Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, with its legalisation of positive discrimination in favour of minorities, will be a strong campaigning point for Labour. The influence of the ethnic vote on Labour thinking was graphically revealed in the diary of Chris Mullin, where in January 2004, he lamented how little the government had done to tackle immigration abuses. “We’ve barely touched the rackets that surround arranged marriages. What mugs we are.” Then he added a comment to the effect that there was the difficulty that “at least 20 Labour seats, including Jack Straw’s, depend on Asian votes”.

Brown’s campaign in 2010 may be desperate, cynical, even deceitful, but that does not mean it will not work. Negative campaigning has worked in the past, most famously in 1992 when the Tories’ demolition of “Labour’s tax bombshell” led to John Major’s victory and one of the biggest upsets in history. A discredited government in the fifth year of its third term can stil

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – 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.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

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