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Fantasy politics

Labour holds on to power in the general election, just. David Cameron survives an attempted coup. Th

Who would have thought that 2010 would be the most dramatic year in British politics in a generation? It started, after all, with the Conservatives still riding high, 10 points ahead in the polls despite signs of a limited Labour revival. In January, the media consensus still pointed to a comfortable Tory victory, if not by a landslide, then with a clear overall majority.

Labour's problems seemed to deepen when, as British soldiers continued to die in Afghan­istan, Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. The panel focused on the 2002 memo from his foreign policy adviser David Manning, outlining the then prime minister's commitment to "regime change". Blair once more offered an impassioned "moral" case for Saddam Hussein's removal but - as the country was again reminded of the inconsis­tencies behind the decision to invade - support for Labour fell below 30 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile, the Tories, who had supported the invasion, were flatlining in the late thirties and the Liberal Democrats, who had opposed it, rose surprisingly to the mid-twenties.

Emboldened, Nick Clegg chose the occasion of the London summit on Afghanistan, on 28 January, to call for troop withdrawal. In doing so, he spurned the private advice of Paddy Ashdown, preferring to follow the example of Charles Kennedy, who had bravely stood against the Iraq action seven years earlier.

As popular enthusiasm for his party increased, Clegg faced repeated questions over which way he would jump in the event of a hung parliament. At first, he stuck to the policy of "equidistance", insisting that he would back whichever party had the most votes. However, as the election drew near, Lib Dem sources began to brief journalists that Labour was the party's more natural ally.

Brown remained personally unpopular during the early months of the year but his con­fidence grew as it became clear that a group of disillusioned MPs, led by Charles Clarke, would not rebel against his leadership. Rediscovering his ruthless streak, Brown incessantly highlighted David Cameron's proposed cut in inheritance tax for the country's 3,000 richest estates. The Conservative policy was reported to have divided the shadow cabinet, but Cameron defied calls for a U-turn and confirmed that a higher tax threshold would be a firm Tory manifesto pledge - to the delight of Labour strategists.

At the end of February, with the gap between the parties narrowing, Brown ruled out a 25 March election. The following month, Alistair Darling delivered Labour's boldest Budget since coming to office in 1997. Called the second People's Budget, after that of Lloyd George in 1909, it placed those earning £100,000 or more in the 50 per cent income-tax bracket. It widened the divide between Labour and the Tories further by raising inheritance tax to 60 per cent for estates worth more than £1m, in order to balance out extensive public expenditure cuts.

As Labour continued to shore up its support base, the Sun stepped up its vilification of Brown, focusing on his alleged "health" problems and at one point asking on its front page: "WOULD YOU TRUST THIS MAN WITH YOUR KIDS?" But the tactic backfired, as it had done with Brown's letters to parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Rupert Murdoch's most populist outlet found itself firmly on the wrong side of public opinion.

It was against this backdrop that Britain went to the polls on Thursday 6 May for the most closely fought election since 1992. By polling day, Labour had secured the support of only the Mirror, the Independent on Sunday and, in spite of internal divisions, the New Statesman. Exit polls on the BBC and ITV predicted a Tory victory of between 30 and 50 seats; only Sky News forecast a hung parliament.

It was all the more shocking, therefore, when the following morning it emerged that Labour had scraped through as the largest single party in parliament. (Elsewhere, the BNP failed to gain a seat and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party lost in Buckingham to the newly popular reforming Speaker, John Bercow.)

It was a spectacular turnaround for Brown, written off by almost everyone in Westminster since the "election that never was" in the autumn of 2007. Even his own MPs dared not believe that he could win an unprecedented fourth term for Labour. Election analysts declared that when the voters got to the polling booths, they opted for the "devil they knew".

The recriminations were immediate. First, Cameron, who had warned against Tory complacency but always expected victory, took the unusual step of demanding a rerun of the election. Some Tory MPs called on the Queen to intervene, and public pressure increased on the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the Con­servatives. After several days of consultation, Clegg said he would back the will of the people and that he was prepared to give Brown the "benefit of the doubt".

The Tory party was ravaged by infighting of a kind not seen in a decade. Cameron's attempts at "modernisation" had failed to win the election, according to his detractors. On the major issues, from Europe to tax to immigration, he had fought shy of challenging his own party, as Neil Kinnock did with his battle against Militant in 1985, or as Blair did with his campaign to abolish Labour's Clause Four in 1994. Pre-election talk that Cameron had brought his party to the centre ground turned out to be misguided, but that perception had remained.

And so, having already tried the "core vote" strategy of William Hague and Michael Howard, the Tories were left feeling as if they had nowhere to turn. David Davis challenged for the party leadership from the backbenches but Cameron narrowly survived.

Meanwhile, Brown reshuffled his cabinet. Yet again, he tried to make his old ally Ed Balls chancellor but the increasingly popular Darling held his ground once more, after winning plaudits from finance ministers around the world for his handling of the economy. Instead, Brown rewarded his political saviour Peter Mandelson with the job of Foreign Secretary, which he had long coveted. Mandelson's predecessor, David Miliband, declined an offer to become Home Secretary and returned to the back benches.

This inevitably renewed talk of a leadership contest and, by the end of the year, four names were in the frame: David Miliband, Balls, an increasingly impressive Harriet Harman, and James Purnell. But Brown defied them all. Bolstered at last with a mandate of his own, he pressed on until the end of the year, winning an electoral reform referendum. He also called Alex Salmond's bluff, rescuing the Union with a Scottish referendum that resulted in a resounding 70-30 vote against independence.

Then, surprising everyone, Brown oversaw a smooth transition of his own, handing what he called the "Labour torch" to a new generation. With supreme irony, having secured his domestic legacy, he won the EU presidency Blair had failed to win, after the unimpressive Herman van Rompuy was forced out when his attempts to block Turkish accession were opposed by member states, including Britain.

In December, the new Prime Minister, Ed Miliband, walked unchallenged in to No 10 and immediately recalled his brother, David, to serve as his deputy.

Last year I said . . .

-Gordon Brown would resist calls for a general election in 2009.
-The economies of both the US and the UK would get worse before they got better.
-Afghanistan would prove Barack Obama's nemesis: there would be renewed bloodshed and no resolution to the conflict.
-Abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts remained David Cameron's best hope for a "Clause Four moment", but he would retreat into tax and spending cuts and neo-Thatcherite monetarism.
-Europe would remain a headache for Cameron . . . after Ireland narrowly
voted Yes in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the autumn. Cameron would have to decide whether to ditch his own commitment to a referendum.
-Alistair Darling would remain Chancellor of the Exchequer.
-Ed Miliband would emerge as the up-and-coming politician of 2009 and come to be regarded as Brown's natural successor.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

Share your thoughts on his political predictions for 2010 at his blog

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

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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.