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The missing word in the Beckett Report: nationalism

Labour is still a world away from understanding what happened to it in England or Scotland, warns John Denham.

By common consent, Margaret Beckett worked hard to produce a balanced account of Labour’s defeat, successfully avoiding ‘handing victory’ to any of the party’s warring factions. But in one respect, Beckett’s report describes an election that is a far cry from what actually happened.

Although she recognises the scale of the defeat in Scotland (and Labour’s modest seat and vote gains in England), she doesn’t spell out that the political contests in those nations were very different. The battle with the SNP in Scotland had very little in common with English Labour’s confrontation with the Tories: the issues, the language, the imagery and the framing were all quite distinct. To read the report, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland was just a region of the UK where Labour did particularly badly.

Labour in Scotland didn’t just lose to any old political party; it lost to one that successfully framed its politics in the language of popular nationalism. It’s a mistake to lump popular nationalism together with all other forms of populism. Nationalism can be populist in irresponsibly evoking  simplistic and emotive solutions to complex problems, but it is not necessarily so. Nationalism can be a way of expressing a common sense of identity, direction and purpose. We might disagree with what they say, but that’s what the SNP appears to have achieved.

The costs of ignoring popular nationalism are clear from the report’s conclusion about Labour’s future direction. It calls for  “A vision for Britain” and continues “we must set out a vision for the country’s future, which shows both what the country needs and what we will contribute to its achievement”. For all those who either don’t see their country as Britain, or only partly as Britain, there is something missing here. Such old fashioned language betrays a deep seated hope that some form of ‘normal politics’ will soon reassert itself and we can go back to ignoring identity and nation and deal solely with the whole. It’s not going to happen. Either Labour learns to talk for Scotland (as well as for Britain) or we will continue to lose in that nation.

Maybe the report tacitly assumes that Labour’s Scottish battle is something separate. Certainly the analysis of the campaign issues are largely focussed on the arguments in England. But here, too, the report misses the emerging importance of distinct English themes in the 2015 campaign.

Most obviously, fears of the SNP ‘propping up a Labour government’ dominated the last two weeks of the campaign. The report rightly concludes that the impact on the result is controversial. It may not have swung millions of votes but almost certainly persuaded sufficient anti-Labour UKIP and LibDem voters to go Tory to keep Labour out. This helped to defeat both Labour and LibDem candidates. The media obsession with the maths of a hung parliament saved the Tories from scrutiny and obscured the Labour and LibDem messages, but no one can say the SNP wasn’t a real talking point on the doorstep.

The precise circumstances of the ’SNP threat’ are unlikely to reoccur, but, the election confirmed the emergence of large groups of English voters who now see elections in terms of ‘what is in the English interest’. The idea that there is an English interest, distinct from and possibly threatened by the interests of other parts of the UK is new. This feels like another genie that is not going back into the bottle any time soon. Studies after the election, including the British Election Survey, reveal sharp differences between the voting patterns of voters who identify as English and those who identify as British: the ‘English’ are more likely to vote to the right and more likely to be anti-EU. Put this together with the upward rise in English identity, and it’s clear Labour has a problem. Either the party finds a way to address and express the English national interest or it will risk losing the ear of a substantial section of the electorate.

Significantly, the Beckett report concludes that ‘no one envisaged’ Cameron’s call for English Votes for English laws’. Yet it was both predictable and predicted (including by myself); it was in the Tory manifesto, big hitters like Kenneth Clarke had come into line, and crucial ground work had been done by the Mackay Commission. The leadership did not want to envisage it because they did not recognise its potency, just as they signed up to ‘the Vow’ blithely ignoring the resentment this would fuel amongst English voters.

Across western Europe, once great social democratic parties are losing ground in the face of popular nationalist forces of right, left and centre. Labour needs to sense the mood before it goes the same way.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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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?