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For the Tories, this was the Brexit election – and Brexit won

Theresa May attracted Leave voters, but lost Remain Tories at the same time. 

Speaking in Nottinghamshire at the start of the 2017 election campaign, Theresa May declared that Brexit was an opportunity “to build a stronger, fairer, better Britain”. She continued: “Conservatives in government will get on with the job of delivering Brexit.”

Voters listened. At least, a significant proportion of Leave voters did. According to analysis of ICM polls by the pollster John Curtice, a senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research, at the start of the campaign, 53 per cent of Leave voters planned to vote Conservative. At the end of the campaign, 58 per cent did.

In Curtice’s analysis of constituencies where less than a quarter of voters backed Brexit, the Conservatives saw their average change in vote share slip by 2 percentage points. By contrast, in constituencies where more than half of voters backed Brexit, the Tories enjoyed an average vote share increase of 10 percentage points.

Lord Ashcroft’s polling, too, shows a six percentage point fall in support for the Tories among Remain voters, compared to 2015, but a 14 percentage point boost from those who backed Leave (the comparative boost for Labour was five points).

Curtice told me the election “was more Brexit than you might imagine at first glance”, although he believed Labour and its popular manifesto also played an important part in changing the tone of the debate.

“It is more clearly so on the Conservative side than Labour,” he said of the Brexit theme. “Labour was taking ground amongst Leave voters – it just wasn’t taking so much ground.”

Crucially, the beleaguered Tory leader Theresa May lived up to one part of her promise – that she would turn blue-collar voters into blue-party supporters as well. According to Curtice’s constituency analysis, in seats where less than a quarter of voters were professionals or managers, the Ukip collapse meant there was an average increase in vote share to the Conservatives of eight percentage points, but only a 2.4 percentage point increase for Labour.

By contrast, in seats dominated by this better off group, Labour was the bigger beneficiary. The Ashcroft Polls also show Conservative support slipping among the AB income group, but growing most significantly among C2 and DEs.

If Labour and the Tories seem to be playing swapsies with their voter bases, there is an explanation – age. Curtice estimates up to two thirds of young voters chose Labour: “Age is important in a way it has never been before.” It has, he believes, replaced class as the key determinant of how someone will vote. Young voters were also the most likely to vote Remain.

So what does this mean for the new parliament? The Brexit case has been made and unmade. Made, by the fact May now relies on a diminished Tory party supported by Leave voters, which explains why she has appointed Steve Baker, up until now mainly known for his arch-Leave WhatsApp group, a Brexit minister. And yet also unmade by the defection of Tory Remain voters expected to put up and shut up rather than accept the previously unpopular Jeremy Corbyn.  

The data we have so far on the election result is torchlight in the dark, rather than microscopic vision (much of Curtice’s analysis is based on polls conducted throughout the campaign), but nevertheless it suggests that the divisions created by Brexit will haunt this parliament, or - if the internal Tory contradictions prove too much for May to govern - the next.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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?