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Leader: The new divides

It's time for the UK to address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector.

From the French Revolution onwards, politics has been defined by the distinction between left and right. In the UK and elsewhere, conservatives and socialists did battle along socio-economic lines. Class was the best predictor of voting behaviour. However, the division inaugurated by 1789 appears increasingly obsolete. The politics of left v right is being superseded by the politics of open v closed. In the UK, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU split both the Conservatives and Labour into Remainers and Leavers. For the rest of this decade and beyond, British politics will be defined by Brexit, and attitudes towards immigration will be more important than those towards capitalism.

In the US, Donald Trump’s election similarly reshaped historical loyalties. His political programme of closed borders, higher government spending, trade tariffs and tax cuts borrowed from left and right. Like the Brexiteers, he managed to mobilise formerly inactive sections of the electorate.

Across Europe, nationalists are thriving by the same means. In France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, has attracted former Socialists and Communists by vowing to end “multiculturalism” and by promising a referendum on EU membership. In Germany, the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland rejects Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) continues to lead in opinion polls as this year’s general election draws near. Poland and Hungary are already governed by parties of the far right. Faced with this revolt, social democrats are struggling to maintain relevancy.

Though open v closed is the most salient new schism, it is not the only one. In this issue, we detail five others reshaping politics: graduates v non-graduates, old v young, owners v renters, white Britain v ethnic minorities and metropolitan v provincial. For the Conservatives and Labour alike, the challenge is to bridge these divides. Theresa May rightly recognised that the Brexit vote was not merely a rejection of the EU but a symptom of much deeper unrest. For many in the north of England and the Midlands, the referendum was a chance to protest against decades of neglect. Others voted Leave to reduce immigration – even knowing that economic growth could be harmed.

The lesson here is that the UK must address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector. Mrs May has already made progress in some of these areas. In housing, the government has abandoned its predecessor’s obsession with subsidising demand in favour of expanding supply. An additional £1.4bn has been announced for affordable homes, including those for rent. After making no mention of private tenants in their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives have banned letting agent fees.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly abandoned the goal of a budget surplus by 2020 in order to increase infrastructure investment and to soften planned welfare cuts. He has signalled that the triple lock (which ensures that the state pension rises by inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest) could be abolished after the next general election. All of these measures will help to address the increasing gulf between the young (who endured the largest post-crash fall in standards of living) and the old (whose real incomes rose).

Yet even more than this, the government must unite Remainers and Leavers in a shared project of national renewal. In the postwar era, the National Health Service, the welfare state, the Open University and a Keynesian economic strategy helped ameliorate the class divide. The crises in living standards, social care and housing demand no less ambition today. Mrs May’s challenge is not merely to deliver Brexit. It is to make divided Britain united once more. 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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?