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From Soros to Oxfam, political polarisation is pushing conspiracy theories into the mainstream

Two stories from opposite sides of the political spectrum over the past week show quite how far such theories have come.

We normally think of conspiracy theories as the preserve of cranks, the jet-fuel-won’t-melt-steel-beams nutters who think 9/11 was an inside job, or those strange individuals convinced that everyone from 3rd century BC Greek astronomers to Stephen Hawking have perpetuated the myth that the world is spherical rather than flat.

But in recent months we’ve seen conspiracy theorising edging ever further into the mainstream, and two stories from opposite sides of the political spectrum over the past week show quite how far it has come.

First, we had George Soros backing a “secret plot to thwart Brexit” on the front page of the right-wing Daily Telegraph, detailing a donation made by the financier to what was in fact a very public campaign for a second referendum on EU membership. The story painted the Best for Britain organisation as a shadowy cabal aiming to undermine the will of the people, accompanied by a dose of dog-whistle anti-Semitism.

Then, just a few days later, The Times ran a story about Oxfam employees paying local women to attend sex parties in Haiti – women from the same damaged communities they were meant to be helping. This time around, it wasn’t a newspaper pushing conspiracy theories, but a range of left wingers who suggested that the story had been released in a bid to punish Oxfam and discredit the charity’s work.

The fact that The Times had published its scoop mere weeks after the publication of Oxfam’s damning report on global inequality was used to argue that the newspaper must be motivated by vengeance rather than justice (or even just a good story).

In a blog post, Richard Murphy, a respected left-wing expert on tax, cited a column by Rod Liddle attacking Oxfam’s supposedly anti-capitalist agenda as evidence that the journalists at the Times must have produced their report in a bid to defend their wealthy masters.

“What The Times is really angry about is the fact that the world, rightly, believed Oxfam when they said that capitalism distributes the rewards of market activity inequitably and that the world's wealthiest people did not actually earn their fortunes but extracted them from others,” he wrote. “And so, in an attempt to discredit this message The Times is dedicated to raking Oxfam's muck. And it found some.”

To be fair to Murphy, it’s a plausible motive, but he hasn’t provided any evidence that backs up his claim.

Now, of course, clandestine organisations plotting to overturn democratic votes do exist. And of course, it is not exactly unheard of for a newspaper to run a story to punish some perceived enemy, political or otherwise.

But with both the Soros story and the response to the revelations about Oxfam, conspiracies have been imagined and alleged without any evidence to back them up, just a conviction that such an uncomfortable truth couldn’t really be true. It’s unthinkable that those motivated by what they think is best for the UK might believe Brexit is a terrible idea. It’s unthinkable that The Times might consider a major charity failing to stop the abuse of those it was trying to help a story worth printing on its own merits.

For people faced with things they don’t want to accept, conspiracy theories can be a useful comfort blanket. People can use them to hide from those inconvenient truths without troubling the rest of the world too much.

But what’s especially worrying about both these recent examples is how the theorising has spread from the fringes into mainstream discourse – the pages of a national newspaper, the public posts of otherwise reasonable activists and commentators (Murphy was at one time described as an economics guru for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn).

You don’t have to be a centrist to resist buying into convenient conspiracy theories, but you do need to be prepared to accept that maybe, sometimes, some of those on your side, maybe even lots of people on your side, might be wrong, and maybe even that sometimes the other side might be right. But that’s very difficult if your chosen political stance demands absolute belief.

Many of those touting the most outlandish conspiracy theories will urge you to “keep an open mind” on whether the moon landings were faked or aliens crashed at Roswell. Doing so seems to be beyond a growing chunk of people on both the left and right who see a conspiracy behind anything that challenges what they know, without any doubt, must be true.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesman's digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.

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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.