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Whatever the solution, Labour can't ignore its English problem

Those who disagree with Tristram Hunt's proposal of an English parliament must suggest alternatives.

Most of the reasons for Labour's general election defeat have been well-rehearsed: its leader wasn't viewed as an alternative prime minister, it wasn't trusted to manage the economy and it was at odds with voters on welfare and immigration. But there is another failing that has received far less scrutiny: the belief that the party was anti-English. The problem was visible as long ago as 2005 when the Conservatives won more votes than Labour in England and has grown consistently worse. As post-election polling by GQR found, 57 per cent said they were were "quite concerned"or "very concerned" that the party "put people from other countries before the interests of England". The rise of Scottish nationalism and the concurrent rise of English nationalism have cast Labour adrift. 

Despite this, as former cabinet minister John Denham recently wrote on The Staggers, the Beckett Report on the defeat failed to take account of this new political landscape. Its call for a "vision for Britain", he noted, neglected those "who either don't see their country as Britain or only partly as Britain". Unless it accepts this new reality, voters' alienation from the party will both widen and deepen.

Denham, whose former seat of Southampton Itchen was lost to the Conservatives (leaving Labour with just 12 of the 197 seats south of the Severn-Wash line), has founded the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University where Tristram Hunt will speak tonight. In his address, the former shadow education secretary will call for a referendum on the adoption of either an English parliament (his preferred option), regional assemblies or English Votes for English Laws ("the jury is still out"). A public vote, he will say, would allow England to "experience the same kind of democratic awakening" as Scotland and Labour should "lead it". The political logic is clear: by advocating a referendum, the party will signal that it trusts voters (having opposed a vote on the EU) and is at ease with the politics of English identity.

At present, he will say: "Our sense of Englishness matters to us more and more, and the Labour Party has fallen on the wrong side of that cultural divide. According to Jon Cruddas’s review into why the Labour Party lost the 2015 General Election, since 2005 voters who are socially conservative are the most likely to have deserted Labour. They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them. And, tragically, they feel that Labour no longer represents them, or understands their lives. In short, they felt we didn’t value England, and were not on the side of the English."

Most Labour MPs will likely disagree with Hunt on the need for an English parliament ("how very silly" shadow leader of the Commons Chris Bryant told me). Many argue that there is little demand among voters for a new political institution and that England's size makes a separate body incompatible with Westminster. But those who disageee with Hunt's solution must offer their own. The EU referendum, the SNP's hegemony in Scotland and the possibility of a second independence referendum will all raise the salience of the English question. And arithmetic alone dictates that Labour must transform its performance in England. With no sign of a revival in Scotland, almost all of the 106 gains the party will need to make after the boundary changes will be here. 

But many MPs believe that Jeremy Corbyn, far from answering the English problem, struggles to even recognise it. They lament how often his failure to sing the national anthem is raised by voters and fear that his stances on immigration, Trident and foreign policy are widening the divide between them and the electorate. Corbyn has struck a consciously patriotic note in several speeches, declaring in his Labour conference address: "[It’s] because I love this country, that I want to rid it of injustice – to make it fairer, more decent, more equal." But as Hunt suggests, far more dramatic intervention will be needed to begin to solve the English problem. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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?