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What does #FBPE mean and could it stop Brexit? The history of a hashtag

The hashtag was first used on 25 October 2017 by Hendrik Klaassens.

If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you may have noticed the #FBPE hashtag adorning tweets. More likely you saw it appended to the names of many Twitter rank-and-file pouring fiery anti-Brexit commentary on Brexit-related tweets. What does it all mean? And where did it come from?

FBPE stands for “Follow Back, Pro EU”. So it is a flag of pro-EU support, but also an indication that if you “follow” the bearer, they will follow you back if you also carry the hashtag. Thus, it has rapidly helped build up the accounts of pro-EU frontline troops on Twitter whilst also interconnecting them in powerful ways to transmit information more rapidly and efficiently. It has solidified an online community and made it highly visible. The history of the hashtag’s use has been short, exotic, and is an entertaining tale of Twitter culture.

The hashtag was first used on 25 October 2017 by Hendrik Klaassens, who posted: “#ProEU tweeps organize Follow Back Saturdays! Type #FollowBackProEU or #FBPE if you want to get more #ProEU followers. Let’s do this!” Hendrik is a Dutch member of the pan-European group “Progressive Europe” which wanted to combat right-wing populism on social media.

The British account @Remain_Central replied to Hendrik’s tweet with: “Good way to help #StopBrexit - follow, share and #FollowBackProEU. We’re stronger together.”

Being pestered by a message on Twitter to promote the #FBPE hashtag, I decided to do a video on it. My several Twitter videos on #FBPE have now had over 100,000 views. In the first video, I noted that a few people had appended #FBPE to their names – and that this was great for identifying those to follow. I also made the point of the power of network effect. Rather than everyone re-tweeting pro-EU celebrities and politicians, it’s more effective if there are many interconnected front-line pro-EU troops. That means that when anyone spots new information, they have enough other pro-EU followers that the information spreads very fast. A community can work as a super-organism.

The #FBPE hashtag boomed in visibility during December. There was an immediate sense of cohesive community. At first Brexiteers didn’t know quite how to respond. There were various attempts to try to set up pro-Brexit alternatives, and then to use the #FBPE hashtag itself and try to infiltrate and redefine it. Famous online Brexiteers Julia Hartley-Brewer and David Vance both caught that bug and appended #FBPE to their names, claiming it meant “Full Brexit Prompt Exit.” They were met with welcoming messages, thanking them for spreading awareness of a pro-EU movement. Both have now dropped it from their names.

Brexiteer Lord Ashcroft conducted a Twitter poll asking whether people wanted a second referendum on Brexit. After over 180,000 votes, the results came back 67 per cent for yes and 28 per cent for no. Ashcroft noted the effectiveness of #FBPE grumpily: “Final result. Unscientific of course but notable for how remainers constantly retweeted to help the result they wanted especially those with #FPBE. They succeeded in ‘getting the vote out’...well done...will now do a conventional poll for comparison...”

All was not well within the #FBPE tent, however. Jeremy Corbyn supporters, whether #FBPE themselves or not, started getting angry that many bearing #FBPE were attacking Corbyn’s position on Brexit. The attacks came especially from Liberal Democrats. Odd rumours spread that #FBPE was a Lib Dem or Tory operation against Corbyn. In early January 2018, Mark Winder set up a new hashtag – #PCPEU – for “Pro-Corbyn Pro-EU” so that they could grow their own community in the Corbyn base without having to deal with sniping from others in the #FBPE crowd. That move took a lot of heat out of the within-#FBPE battles. The #PCPEU hashtag grew fast and developed its own flavour.

Other hashtags also blossomed directly from the #FBPE community. One was #NHSlove, started by pro-NHS social media superstar Dr Lauren Gavaghan. Others are #FBSI (Follow Back Scottish Independence), #WATON (We Are The Opposition Now), #ABTV (Anti-Brexit Tactical Vote). However, #FBPE still remains the largest and most prominent. The @16MillionRising Twitter account carries Twitter “lists” of thousands of accounts that bear the hashtag on their names. There is even a growing community of Leave voters converted to Remain that use the specific hashtag #RemainerNow and also proudly bear #FBPE on their names. Something about the community feel of #FBPE means that these converts quickly have a very supportive new home.

So where now for #FBPE? Well, social media is superb for communicating information about real-world action too. As Spring approaches, there will be much more street activity from the nearly 100 anti-Brexit regional groups around the country. Those groups are growing fast and as they put up pictures and videos of their street presence on social media, #FBPE will help spread awareness fast in the Twittersphere. Britain has a new cultural community rising. It’s pro-EU. And #FBPE is part of the glue.

Dr Mike Galsworthy (@mikegalsworthy) is co-founder of the campaigns Scientists for EU & Healthier in the EU.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.