On the road with Robert Halfon: Harlow’s Tory MP, who walks with crutches, uses one of the town’s busiest roads to reach voters during the campaign. Photo: CHARLIE FORGHAM-BAILEY FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Election 2015: The battle for the soul of Essex Man

If Labour are ever again to win an absolute majority, it must start by winning back working-class voters in constituencies like Harlow.

Last November, accompanied by television cameras and the BBC’s political editor, Ed Miliband visited Harlow in west Essex. It was a highly choreographed visit. A few days earlier this magazine had criticised his performance, precipitating a leadership crisis – there were reports of coups and secret letters circulating – and this was to be part of what was being described as his fightback. Miliband’s cerebral socialism and appalling personal ratings, as well as his wretched conference speech – the philosopher John Gray called it a “dire threnody to togetherness” – had dismayed many of his own MPs, who were briefing incessantly against him. It was as if, by turning up in Harlow, he wanted to demonstrate that, contrary to what had been written, he did indeed understand the concerns and aspirations of Essex Man and Woman and was determined to reach out beyond Labour’s core vote.

The Conservatives won Harlow in 1983 and held it until 1997, when Tony Blair swept all before him. Robert Halfon won the seat back for the Tories in 2010 with a majority of a little under 5,000, having lost it by just 97 votes in 2005. (He also contested the seat in 2001.) If Labour is ever to win an absolute majority again it has to start by winning back working-class voters in Home Counties constituencies such as Harlow, where unemployment remains high and wages are stagnant. At present, Labour does not have a single MP in Essex, Kent, Sussex or Hertfordshire, and, excluding London, only ten out of 197 seats south of the ­Severn-Wash line.

Harlow new town was a creation of the New Towns Act 1946. In the early years of the town, the local council and the ­Harlow Development Corporation together owned most of the housing stock and rents were cheap. My parents were among those who moved out here in the 1960s, first renting and then buying a house in a quiet cul-de-sac on a private development. As children, they had been wartime evacuees and Harlow offered a fresh start for them and new opportunities in a semi-rural environment – even today, as much as a third of the town is parkland or fields and cattle graze within walking distance of the main railway station.

I grew up and went to school in the town during a period of considerable optimism and cultural homogeneity, when it felt as if there was a strong sense of common purpose. The new town had its own manu­facturing base providing employment, a vibrant town centre, excellent infrastructure, first-rate recreational and sporting facilities (Glenn Hoddle emerged from the Harlow leagues), a network of cycle tracks, abundant housing and an elegant, 164-acre landscaped town park. The local population was tough and resilient – many of them from cockney families – but Harlow also had a dedicated and idealistic intelligentsia who used to meet for film, poetry and drama evenings at the Playhouse Theatre. My father was one of them. Life in the town could be insular and nearly everyone I knew was white. The schools could have been better and much more academically rigorous, but at the time it felt like a good, safe place to live – and the excitements of London and its football clubs were a short train ride away.

“The town attracted progressives, community-minded people,” Ron Bill, a local historian and Labour Party activist, once told me. “Frederick Gibberd [the consultant architect planner for the Harlow development] was an example of such a person. That first wave of people who came to the town in the 1950s and 1960s – many of them socialists and communists – they wanted to build something. The trouble is, there wasn’t a second wave equal to the first.” (I discovered many years later that the headmaster of my school, whom I remember as a short, bald, aggressively strutting man, was or had been a member of the Communist Party. Perhaps this explained his general air of disenchantment and charmlessness.)

Yet by the time my parents moved away in the early 1980s much of the optimism of the early pioneering years of the new town had faded and many people of ambition were keen to get out. Many of the housing estates were in need of urgent repair, businesses and companies were relocating, the infrastructure was not being updated, and schools were closing their sixth forms or closing down altogether. On my first day as a student studying A-levels at the local sixth-form college, I was dismayed to discover that our English literature teacher allowed pupils to smoke during lessons. It was hardly a classroom environment conducive to disciplined study, as well as seeming to me symptomatic of what was going wrong in the town, and I quickly lost interest. Within a year, I had dropped out.

I understand now that to have lived in Harlow when I did was to have been a participant in some grand quasi-socialist, postwar experiment and, in our town at least, for all its admirable intentions, it hadn’t quite succeeded. Today, Harlow has long been associated with decline and under­achievement. There are areas of entrenched deprivation and unemployment has been persistently high (the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance doubled between 2005 and 2012).

The town centre, when I visited one ­recent afternoon, felt especially desolate. The market – which used to be a place of boisterous interaction and clamorous activity on a Saturday – was no more. There were too many pound stores and empty units. The old bustle and energy had gone. In February, Marks & Spencer had closed its town-centre store. “That was a real blow for us,” Robert Halfon told me when we met. For many in the town, including one of my aunts, the only member of our family still living in Harlow, the loss of Marks signified something ­fundamentally wrong, a deeper malaise.




Robert Halfon was born with spastic diplegia and walks with the aid of crutches. He is from a wealthy north London family – his father was a Libyan Jew – and was educated at Highgate School and Exeter University, where his friends included Sajid Javid and David Burrowes, now both Tory MPs, as well as Tim Montgomerie, the co-founder of the ConservativeHome website.

Halfon is a self-described Thatcherite (though his politics have softened and deepened since his student days). He has a picture of Ayn Rand on the wall of his Westminster office and once, during a coffee meeting there, we had a conversation about her novel Atlas Shrugged, which he reveres. But Halfon is no free-market fundamentalist. He is a campaigning MP and understands well the needs of the town he represents. What makes him a Conservative, he says, is the conviction that you “can’t spend more than you’re taking in”. This and his dislike for what he considers Labour’s authoritarian and statist instincts, its bossiness and bullying tendencies.

But he believes that the Tories must change. He advocates what he calls “white van conservatism” – he rejects the phrase “blue collar” – and argues that the Conservatives should change their name to the Workers’ Party. They should be the party “of the ladder” – in other words, of aspiration and social mobility. He supports trade unions, investment in apprenticeships, lower taxes for lower earners and increases in the National Minimum Wage. He has campaigned for a cut in fuel duty and against a bingo tax, hospital car-parking charges and illegal encampments in the town. On the question of immigration, he has a simple slogan: “Fair immigration, fair for the taxpayer.”

“Rob is a tribune for the people of Harlow,” says David Skelton, director of Renewal, which campaigns to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. “He is immersed in Harlow. His success comes from his authentic voice; he speaks for the people, knows what they believe, what they want.”

Until George Osborne appointed him as his parliamentary private secretary in 2014 – an example of the Chancellor’s pragmatism and desire to surround himself with heterodox opinions – Halfon was admired on both sides of the House for free thinking and candour, and wrote occasionally for our Staggers blog. He is no government stooge or careerist. Because of his campaigning gifts and belief that conservatism needs to be driven by a sense of moral mission, many believe he should be the next party chairman, replacing the ludicrous and intellectually lightweight Grant Shapps, who would be laughed out of a town such as Harlow.

Throughout the campaign, between 7am and 9.30am, and then again during the evening rush hour, Halfon can be found sitting or standing by the A414, or one of the other main roads running through Harlow. Because of his disability, his movements are restricted and he cannot canvass house by house, street by street. Instead, he stands by the road, eyeballing the drivers as they pass, a very public presence. “People know how much I love Harlow,” he tells me. He has made his home in the town and is a constant presence at events and in the local media.

On the morning of my visit, we set off from his office in (what else?) a white van, which has a large portrait of Halfon imprinted on the side and from which loud speakers pump out music from the Rocky films: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “Gonna Fly Now”. Simon Carter, Halfon’s agent and a local councillor, drives the van. Not everyone is pleased to see us. As we approach a mini roundabout, a man dangles his arm from the driver’s window of his car and gestures obscenely. “We get a bit of that,” Halfon says, cheerfully enough.

Our destination is a Lidl at Staple Tye, a shopping centre in one of the most deprived wards in the town. “I could have taken you to one of the leafy Tory areas,” he says, “but this is where I spend a lot of time.” The area is tatty and run-down. Together with a group of volunteer supporters, Halfon stands outside the main entrance to the supermarket and greets people as they come out, handing them leaflets and flyers. Most of the shoppers are middle-aged or older and they seem pleased to see him. “What, you again!” one woman says. One man thanks Halfon for “helping him out”. Another tells the MP that she will “vote for the man, not the party”. Another man points at his crutches and says: “I’m very sorry for you about that.”

An overweight man in a blue T-shirt, black tracksuit bottoms and white trainers says: “God help us if f***ing Labour get in.” Halfon smiles. A nurse at the local Princess Alexandra Hospital stops to talk about the NHS. She is worried about cuts, as are many of the shoppers. “There will be no cuts,” Halfon says, moving closer to her as if he does not wish to be overheard. “We’ve pledged an extra £8bn.” They have a long conversation (Halfon has several long conversations with different people, and never displays boredom or irritation), at the end of which he says to me: “I think I turned her round.”

Ominously for Labour, I hear few expressions of support for Miliband. A recent Ashcroft poll of Harlow showed that Halfon was 9 points ahead of his Labour rival, Suzy Stride, and poised to retain the seat.

Over lunch at a nearby McDonald’s, Halfon tells me he was encouraged that, at the launch of the Conservative manifesto, David Cameron had claimed to represent the “party of working people”. This language was reminiscent of Halfon’s, even if some would have found it risible when spoken by Cameron. “That helped us,” he says. He uses a curious metaphor to characterise where the Conservatives have reached: “We have got the car on the drive but we are not yet in the house. The Tories are the workers’ party – the party of 30 hours of childcare, lower taxes, good schools, hard work, of £8bn extra investment in the NHS – and we’ve got to let people know it.”

The campaign being fought against him by his Labour opponent, he says, is excessively negative. “She keeps going on about my voting record.” Evidently, this bothers Halfon because he mentions it on several occasions, including just before we part.




Suzy Stride – her alliterative name has the ring of a character from a Martin Amis novel – instructs me via text to meet her on a bench in “Water Gardens in front of Nando’s” in the town centre. When I arrive, she is not there; but one of her campaigners is, a bearded former Liberal Democrat (now disaffected), who says that Stride has gone to buy lunch at the nearby Asda. She returns holding a drink and a packet of crisps.

Born and brought up in modest circumstances in the East End – she has the accent and vernacular conversational style to prove it – Stride studied at Girton College, Cambridge, and then worked in education and for a charity providing youth crime prevention projects. She is warm, energetic and animated but a little guileless. She overuses the rhetorical phrase “do you know what I mean?” – and is convinced of Halfon’s duplicity. No sooner have we met than she shows me a leaflet detailing her opponent’s voting record in the Commons. “He voted for bankers’ bonuses and for cuts in local government funding,” she says. “He’s Halfon the hypocrite. He says one thing to the people of Harlow and then votes for bankers’ bonuses and the bedroom tax.”

I suggest that he would have been constrained by collective responsibility. Stride is not convinced.

“Sorry, what does that mean? He talks the language of aspiration, of helping the people of Harlow, but this isn’t consistent with his voting record. On 18 occasions, he voted to protect bankers’ bonuses.”

Is her campaign against Halfon too negative, as he would have it? “I believe in exposing truth,” she says. “Do you know what I mean? He voted against the town. He voted for cuts in local government. He’s a lot of talk. I’m working to fix problems that he voted for and created. People are worse off than they were five years ago. I hear this on the doorstep.”

I ask Stride what has gone wrong in Harlow. Why does so much of the town feel run-down, especially the town centre? “You’ve got to change the mindset. People aim too low. They’re aiming here” – she holds out her hand – “but they’ve got to aim here.” She extends her arm high as if trying to shoot a basket. “You can’t just talk about aspiration and wish for it. You’ve got to make it happen for people.”

I liked Stride. Her passion and commitment are impressive, as is her journey from Bow, in Tower Hamlets, to Cambridge, where she says she never felt entirely comfortable and used to volunteer to work with people on a council estate so that she could “experience normality”. She says she admires Ed Miliband – “he’s a great leader” – but concedes that Labour needs more diversity on its front bench, more politicians like Alan Johnson who know something of life outside the seminar room, the special adviser’s office and policy forums. “I feel you need people who are good with policy but also people who have lived and breathed normality, who have lived and breathed struggle. All three parties have got to change. You’ve got to shake up Westminster. I go there and I feel out of place.”

Labour ought to win Harlow, where most voters earn less than the national median wage and where 30 per cent live in social housing, but for some reason Ed Miliband’s deliberative style does not resonate in the town or more generally with the skilled working class in Essex. Suzy Stride is also unfortunate in having as an opponent ­Robert Halfon, one of the most dedicated MPs in the Commons.

I asked my aunt, a long-time Labour supporter who has lived in the same house for more than 50 years, what she thought of her MP. “Oh, I do like that little man,” she said. “You see him out and about and he works hard.” I asked if she would vote for him. “I couldn’t... I’d be worried what Edgar [her late father, my maternal grandfather, a union man] would say.” She paused. “But I do like that man, I really do like him.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!