Time to rein in the wreckless

Former Labour minister turned thinktank chief Chris Leslie gives his reaction to Alistair Darling's

Alistair's speech to conference today may not be the talk of the bar at the Midland Hotel - most delegates wanted far more radicalism - but there's no doubt that it was the most significant contribution to the actual debates so far.

He didn't detail a raft of policy specifics, nor did he commit to new spending plans. But the Chancellor did signal that the normal market orthodoxies which have let rip in the city are at last facing the prospect of restraint and accountability.

This is seismic stuff and Labour's leadership would do well to capture the imagination of the vast majority of the British public by acting decisively to curb excessive speculation and the perverse bonus culture that has fuelled the recent financial turmoil.

It's not only morally right that Labour reins in those wrecklessly gambling with the livelihoods of others, it is essential if we are to rebuild an efficient and successful economy.

Short-selling stocks and talking down the prospects of companies can become a cancer that deters long term investment and destabilises rationale investment choices.

We are witnessing the dawning realisation that markets have their limits, that at the edges of economics there are vital political interests, and that those advocating sturdy regulation and transparency have been right all along.

Britain now has an opportunity to lead the world in the design of a fairer and more open system of international checks and balances. And Labour should highlight the reliance of the Tories on the old laissez faire paradigms now wholly defunct.

Gordon will need to maintain early momentum and strike while the iron is hot. In the new circumstances we find ourselves in there is a real chance to put Cameron on the back foot, especially if hypothecating some tax revenues from the very richest and giving a tax break to the vast majority.

The Tories like to talk about "sharing the proceeds of growth". Those whose wealth has ballooned unfairly during the boom times should be asked to share some of the proceeds of their privileged growth with ordinary working people.

The Tories cannot afford to oppose any reasonable moves to tax and regulate the super-rich. There is a new licence to act boldly in the air and Labour must capitalise on that new mood.

Hinting at changes and chiming with some of the instincts of Labour's delegates is sufficient for this week, but the real test will be on policy activism in Alistair's pre budget report.

Chris Leslie is Labour MP for Nottingham East, former shadow chancellor and a member of the international trade select committee.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?