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Has public opinion really shifted to the left?

Why did a left-wing agenda work for Jeremy Corbyn but not Ed Miliband?

RIP capitalism, you had a good run. That seems to be the verdict of a new report by the centre-right Legatum Institute, chock-full of interesting polling from Populus.

When people were asked what they thought about a range of economic issues, 83 per cent favoured public ownership of water companies, 77 per cent wanted to re-nationalise electricity and gas companies and 76 per cent wanted the railways back under state control. More voters expressed favourable statements about socialism than capitalism, and the reputation of capitalism is scarcely better than communism. Support for increased taxes and higher public spending has overtaken support for spending restraint and lower taxes for the first time since the mid-Noughties. 

"The ground is shifting", writes Fraser Nelson in today's Telegraph. "After decades in which the market has held sway," the New Statesman's George declares, "Voters are ready to summon Leviathan from the depths." Both men put public voice on what many Conservative MPs are saying forlornly in private: that just as Jeremy Corbyn argued in his speech, the centre-ground of politics really has moved to the left.

Are they right? I'm not convinced. One of the neglected truths of the last two years is that the ideas that Corbyn puts forward have, for the most part, always been popular. That was what sustained morale and hope in the leader's office even when their allies in the commentariat were calling for him to go or making eyes at Clive Lewis: that Corbynism would carry them through even if Corbyn couldn't. That, too, was what Ed Miliband's allies believe their own programme of left-wing policies would do for them.

Bluntly these policies weren't kept off the menu during the last Labour government because they were unpopular or some airy nonsense about the "Overton Window" but because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, rightly or wrongly, didn't believe that they worked. As for support for greater levels of public spending, it's long-documented that the longer the Conservatives are in office the greater demand for investment in the public realm and the longer Labour are in office the greater the support for status quo spending.

The interesting question is: why did it work for Corbyn but not Miliband. There are a whole range of possible reasons, ranging from Corbyn's greater credibility and clarity as a proponent of left-wing policies to the calamitous Tory campaign in 2017.

But perhaps the answer could be found at Labour's conference in Brighton and the Conservative gathering in Manchester next week? The biggest change in Brighton since Labour's last visit in 2015 wasn't the mood of the party: it was the person sleeping rough in every alcove around the conference centre late at night. Brighton has seen a 100 per cent increase since Labour last came to town.

The increase in the number sleeping rough is smaller in percentage terms in Manchester but greater numerically. Why wouldn't demand for public spending be on the up? (I don't think it's exactly a coincidence that the demand for more spending started to tail off once the Blair government had got us to the European average in health and education, either.)

And actually there is a measure of Tory hope to be found in Legatum's report. (Not least because the Conservatives kept winning for a full 12 years after the public started to hanker for greater public spending.) It's in the supposedly feckless young. The under-40s actually have a more positive view of capitalism than their elders.

It's perhaps more useful for the Conservatives to ask themselves what the under-40s don't have but the over-40s do. The answers were made clear in demographic analysis by Opinium for the Social Market Foundation: the under-40s don't like culture wars and they can't get a mortgage.

As I write in my NS column this week, the Conservatives can win again if they refrain from saying witless things like "citizens of nowhere" and get more people on the housing ladder. It's Labour's good fortune that they are instead talking about "making the argument" for capitalism rather than talking about "making capitalism work". 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk