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The van attack meme, and how tech giants face up to the alt-right

With every new attack – and the coverage that follows it – the threshold for violence is raised.

It’s 41 years since Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” as a cultural version of a gene: an idea or behaviour that replicates itself through society. After hearing about the terrible van attack in Barcelona, I couldn’t help thinking of it that way: a response to both the difficulty of building a viable bomb (demonstrated by the terror cell’s accidental destruction of its own workshop the night before the attack) and the coverage of previous attacks in London, Paris, Nice and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that would also suggest that we should expect more such attacks. In 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about sociologist Mark Granovetter, who tried to understand why non-violent people became involved in riots. “Social processes are driven by our thresholds,” wrote Gladwell. “In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero – instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one.”

Gladwell applied the same model to school shootings, arguing that these were more than simple copycats, but instead a group with very different backgrounds and motivations, “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot”.

We could also apply it to van attacks. Some are carried out by men with overt affiliations to terror groups, but there are also smaller-scale attacks that tend to kill a handful of people.

In Finsbury Park in June, one such attack targeted an Islamic centre, injuring 11; in April, five people died in Stockholm when a car drove into a department store. The alleged perpetrator in Finsbury Park was white; in Stockholm it was a rejected Uzbek asylum seeker. But with every new attack – and the coverage that follows it – the threshold is raised.

Disunited right

The shocking images of white supremacists that emerged from Charlottesville, and the resulting acknowledgement that their repulsive views largely bred online, have rattled the big internet companies. After the death of protester Heather Heyer, several white supremacist Facebook pages disappeared, and there were similar bans by Reddit, Twitter and hosting companies. It was the first real crack in the tech giants’ insistence that they cannot be held responsible for what happens on their platforms.

This is long overdue. As John Herrman wrote in the New York Times: “A community of trolls on an internet platform is, in political terms, not totally unlike a fascist movement in a weak liberal democracy: it engages with and uses the rules and protections of the system it inhabits with the intent of subverting it and eventually remaking it in their image or, if that fails, merely destroying it.” There are limits to tolerance.

Northern exposure

“Far be it from me to offer advice to the Prime Minister on how to relaunch her premiership this autumn,” wrote George Osborne in the Financial Times, before offering advice to the Prime Minister. The former chancellor suggested that Theresa May should use the Conservative party conference to commit to “High Speed 3”, a rail line linking Liverpool and Hull.

If any politician is serious about the “Westminster bubble” or the “north-south divide”, then improving transport in the north of England and Wales is vital. In July, transport secretary Chris Grayling scrapped plans to electrify railway lines in the Midlands, Lake District and from Cardiff to Swansea, after the budget ballooned. The electrification of the line between Manchester and Leeds is also “paused”. I suspect the rest of the country reads the endless stories about the woes of Southern Rail and feels a little left out.

A little bus

There’s also a tempting analogy between transport and education. As Peter Wilby wrote last week (First Thoughts, 18 August), the saga of Learndirect, the country’s biggest provider of apprenticeships and training, is a major scandal. But the children of journalists, MPs and lobbyists are more likely to go to university than into an apprenticeship, so I suspect it will rumble rather than rage. In the same way, we hear a lot more about railways – which disproportionately benefit the middle classes and those of working age. But buses account for 80 per cent of public transport in Wales (and that’s after services declined by half in the decade from 2005-15).

The loss of bus services is particularly hard on older people. Search the local papers and you’ll turn up all kinds of small tragedies, like Thornbury in Gloucestershire, where the 615 route is ending because the operator is insolvent. “I am on my way to the shops right now,” Eunice Cox, 95, told the local paper. “Where would I be if I didn’t have this little bus to help me get there?”

Burgeoning Burgon

During my last sojourn in this column, I criticised Labour’s justice spokesman Richard Burgon, saying that a) he doesn’t seem to have had much effect on prisons policy; and b) the latest post on his Twitter feed was sticking the knife into colleagues who weren’t sufficiently pro-Corbyn. In a searing Facebook post, he called this a “bizarre attack on Labour” and pointed out that he had “recently spoken on prisons in parliament, on the news and in the papers and have, amongst other things, accompanied the chief inspector of prisons on a prisons inspection”. I am happy to clarify that Burgon has indeed made some media appearances, for which I congratulate him.

Living a life

The TV shows of Bruce Forsyth were an integral part of my childhood. (Was winning a cuddly toy really that aspirational back then? Apparently so.) His death reminded me of a strange fact: he was born on 22 February 1928, making him 16 months older than Anne Frank. All those stolen years. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.