The Lib Dems' shift left could be more dangerous for the Tories than Labour

With the Tories his party's main electoral foe, Clegg is seeking to woo the One Nation voters alienated by the Conservatives' UKIP tendency.

Chris Huhne has ventured in Juncture magazine that any Labour/Lib Dem coalition after the next election is likely to be based upon common agreement in the policy areas of tax, the environment and housing. Which would be grand if he’s right, as Lib Dem members seem to think that these three areas (plus jobs) should form the four key pillars of the 2015 manifesto.

And indeed the received wisdom is that Nick has moved left (much to the chagrin of certain high profile MPs) - remember the long list of things we’ve stopped the Tories doing in government announced at conference, the free school meals announcement, the agreement to look again at secret courts post 2015, the apparent acceptance that the bedroom tax might not be the best idea since sliced bread...

The differentiation strategy is in full swing and it looks like Nick has heeded the advice of Tim Farron when he said of left-leaning Lib Dem voters from 2010: "The people who are most likely to vote for you next time are the people who voted for you last time...You don’t write people off, they’re there to be persuaded to come back, or rather stay with us". 

So, it’s all guns blazing on the swing to the left. Or is it? I wonder if there isn’t another thought in the minds of Great George Street folk.

We’ve already tacitly accepted that 2015 is going to be tough for the Lib Dems and we’re in defensive mode. The second place party in the majority of our seats is the Tories, not Labour (38 vs. 19). Of our top 50 target seats, the majority are Tory. Of the 13 seats we lost in 2010 – in theory, the easiest for us to win back – no less than 10 fell to Tories.

Which is why I suspect what’s going on is less a lurch to the left but a small veer, designed to appeal to One Nation Tories alienated by the UKIP tendency in the Conservatives that seems to be in the ascendency. The sort of person who cares about the environment, who bought into "vote blue, go green" and now feels a little let down. The sort of voter who benefits most from the rise in the income tax threshold. The sort of voter who cares quite a lot about house prices and home ownership. The sort of voter Nick Boles had in mind when he suggested it might be time for a revival of the National Liberal Party – before it was pointed out that there already is one…

The environment. Tax. Housing. It’s what we’ll be fighting the next election on. But I wonder if it’s an agenda that should give David Cameron more sleepless nights that Ed Miliband?

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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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?