Diane Abbott told The Staggers that she was opposed to an "arbitrary cap". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour MPs set to rebel against party over welfare cap

Diane Abbott and other backbenchers refuse to join leadership in backing Osborne's measure.

When George Osborne announced the level of the new cap on welfare spending in his Budget and the government's plan to stage a vote on the issue this week, many predicted Labour would walk into his "trap" and vow to oppose the measure. But immediately after the Chancellor's speech, Ed Balls defied expectations by announcing that his party would be supporting it. As he explained at his post-Budget briefing to journalists, "We'll vote yes on the welfare cap next week...Ed Miliband called for a welfare cap last year, in his speech in June, and we have agreed with the way in which the government has structured the welfare cap, what's in and what's out in the next parliament."

Since the cap (set at £119bn for 2015-16) excludes cyclical benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance and housing benefit for the unemployed, spending on which fluctuates according to the state of the economy, Labour is prepared to accept it. As Balls alluded to, Ed Miliband used his speech on social security last summer to announce his support for a cap on "structural welfare spending", a pre-emptive move designed to spike Osborne's guns.

But while the Labour leadership has endorsed the government's cap (and will whip MPs in favour on Wednesday), a significant minority of Miliband's backbenchers are opposed to the policy. When I spoke to Diane Abbott this morning, she told me that she would not be voting in favour of the cap on the grounds that it will "encourage cuts in benefits, rather than long-term strategies to do things to bring the benefits bill down, like housebuilding, like a rise in the minimum wage ... I cannot support an arbitrary cap".

She warned that the measure was "part of a political narrative which demonises welfare claimants; most of the public don’t understand that half of welfare claimants are pensioners and that another quarter are in work." When I asked her whether she would be voting against, she told me that she was "consulting with her local party". But backbenchers John McDonnell, Ian Lavery and Mike Wood have all told The Staggers that they will be opposing the measure, with at least 10-15 expected to join them.

The size of the rebellion will be a good indicator of the number of MPs who could be expected to oppose future austerity measures introduced under a Labour government. If Miliband enters Downing Street with a small majority, he could be held hostage by his party's left. 

P.S. The Tories are keen to point out that as well as voting for the welfare cap on Wednesday, Labour will also be endorsing Osborne's current fiscal rules: to eliminate the structural deficit over a rolling, five-year period and to reduce the national debt as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16. But one Labour source pointed out to me that the Chancellor is still forecast to breach the second of these commitments (debt is not forecast to fall until 2016-17), remarking that "the Tories have rather messed this up if they want to highlight their broken fiscal targets".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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?