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Leader: The Corbyn surge

Most of his MPs expected him to lead Labour to a shattering defeat; in the event, he has inspired an astonishing revival.

Theresa May called an early general election in the expectation of achieving the first Conservative landslide majority since 1987. An inept campaign left her humiliated, and her tenuous hold on power dependent on the support of the unpleasantly reactionary Democratic Unionist Party. The Tories were deservedly punished by the electorate for their failures in office and for their joyless, arrogant campaign. 

After seven years of austerity economics, they could not explain how they would improve public services or return hope to the British people. Mrs May’s encouraging early positioning – and her vow to remake conservatism, as well as her desire to eradicate “burning injustice” – was never developed. 

During the election, she abandoned the language of compassionate conservatism and used robotic clichés. Rather than seeking to earn voters’ trust, she assumed that the promise of a “hard” Brexit and antipathy towards Jeremy Corbyn would suffice. Were it not for 12 Conservative gains in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party recklessly promised a second independence referendum, Labour might well be in power.

Yet though they lost 13 seats, the Tories achieved their highest vote share since 1983 (42.4 per cent). It was not a Conservative collapse but a Labour surge that cost Mrs May her majority. 

Labour unexpectedly won 32 seats and increased its vote share from 30.4 per cent to 40 per cent – the largest rise since Clement Attlee’s landslide victory in 1945. 

The Conservatives will be wary of calling an early election because they now fear that Labour could defeat them. Much credit for this unlikely turnaround resides with the maligned Mr Corbyn. The Labour leader delivered on his original promise to revive the party by attracting young voters, non-voters and former SNP, Ukip and Green supporters. He ran an optimistic and even joyful campaign, defined by policy initiatives rather than slogans.

Most of his MPs expected him to lead Labour to a shattering defeat; in the event, he has inspired an astonishing revival. No one would dare underestimate him again, certainly not as a campaigner, even if he is far less impressive as a Commons performer and day-to-day operator.

Labour’s manifesto proposed popular (indeed, populist) measures, such as the abolition of student tuition fees, universal free school meals and the renationalisation of the railways. It eschewed the politics of generational warfare in favour of a social-democratic offer to young and old.

Mr Corbyn was also pragmatic. By promising to renew Trident and increase police numbers by 10,000, he blunted Tory attacks over national security. Mr Corbyn recognised the positive role of immigration and the importance of public investment to the economy. And Labour’s position on Brexit was sufficiently ambiguous to attract both Remainers and Leavers.

Under attack from much of the media and his own MPs because of his past associations, and doubted by the New Statesman, Mr Corbyn showed considerable resilience. He enjoys campaigning and it shows. Rather than condemning his party to a decade of opposition, he has improbably created the conditions for victory next time, as Neil Kinnock did by losing narrowly in 1992. In spite of his many shortcomings, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to lead the party into the next election, whenever it falls. He has won the Labour civil war.

Now, it is time for the party to unite behind him. Backbench critics should be prepared to serve in the shadow cabinet or as shadow ministers. In return, the leader’s left-wing allies should cease all talk of deselection and accept policies such as support for Nato. For Labour, as its election campaign demonstrated, unity is strength.

The party must also recognise that, while it advanced, it did not win. For the third successive election, Labour finished comfortably behind the Conservatives when it should have won. Labour must do more to convince the many voters who retain doubts about its economic credibility and Mr Corbyn’s fitness for the highest office.

Yet, after seven years of austerity, there is a real desire for transformative change of the kind that only Labour can deliver. We are all weary of the effects of neoliberalismultra-globalisation and the underfunding of public services.

On the eve of the Brexit negotiation, Britain faces yet more political instability. Yet, if there is any consolation, the election has demonstrated that there is no Commons majority for a hard Brexit. Nor is there one in the country. A reinvigorated Labour and MPs of all parties should compel the government to prioritise the economy, rather than immigration control, in the negotiations.

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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?