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The next election will be a battle between Corbynism and Brexitism

Labour is no longer a party of centre-left social democracy.

In December last year, I spent a long, cold Saturday in Prague with Jeremy Corbyn, his charming wife, Laura, and his chief strategist, Seumas Milne. We were at a gathering of European socialist parties and wherever we went in the Soviet-era conference hall Corbyn was mobbed by admirers wishing to have selfies taken with him. Here was more evidence of his popularity and, indeed, his cult of personality.

During one of my conversations with Milne, he said something that has stayed with me. What he said was this: the Tories would call a general election in the early summer; Labour would be ready for the election and, because of the party’s hundreds of thousands of new paying members, it would have the funds to contest it well; the party would exploit its social media expertise; and Jeremy Corbyn would run as a Bernie Saunders or Donald Trump-style populist. I remember thinking: “Good luck with that strategy, sir!”

Yet much of what Milne forecast came to pass after Theresa May called the snap election that destroyed her authority and, as John McDonnell writes in the New Statesman Christmas issue, opened the way for a Labour government of a kind none of us, potentially, has ever seen before.

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A few weeks ago I was a guest at an intimate dinner in London for the Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev, author most recently of After Europe. Krastev has anatomised the new populism destabilising much of Europe. He believes populism is defined by intensity: a politics of intensity is supplanting a politics of moderation and consistency. Nigel Farage, whom I interviewed in this week’s magazine, is an intense politician. And so is Corbyn, whom Farage admires greatly for his resilience, anti-system rhetoric, oratory and transformative effect.

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Where I take issue with Krastev is with his contention that, as he wrote in the New York Times on 4 December, populists “don’t aspire to change society. They want it preserved and frozen. They represent resentment against the changes – technological, economic and demographic – of modern life understood as permanent revolution. And the only solution they can offer is destruction.”

I accept that much of the energy of the new populism is propelled by a sense of convulsive resentment. But destruction is a form of change; by definition, it does not seek to conserve or preserve. Destruction is a revolutionary act. And there are different kinds of populism, of both left and right.

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Jeremy Corbyn, who is considered by Milne to be a populist, is not an anti-immigration xenophobe. You don’t doubt he wants to change society. Yet, like all populists: he positions himself against nefarious or unaccountable elites, against an establishment. His form of politics (perhaps unfairly) has been called “public-school radicalism” or “middle-class populism”, not least because two of his closest aides went to Winchester College and Corbyn himself is deeply privileged (the family home was so large it had previously been a hotel).

Because of the Corbyn ascendancy, Labour is no longer a party of centre-left social democracy. It is a radical party in thrall to a movement, Momentum. Those Labour MPs – the majority – who wish to reclaim their party will have a long wait. A realignment has taken place and the left are in control: the result of the June general election means there is no turning back. The next election will be a contest between Corbynism and Brexitism. Martin Jacques has argued that, far more than any of the other party leaders, Corbyn “is in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity”. But can he complete the journey to power?

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My colleague Tom Gatti has done fine work managing our media partnership with the Cambridge Literary Festival, which under the leadership of Cathy Moore and her team becomes ever larger and more impressive. One of the events I attended at the recent winter festival was a discussion on post-truth politics between the journalists Matthew d’Ancona and Evan Davis. It was chaired by David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge and host of the excellent Talking Politics podcast (check it out, if you haven’t listened to it). Both Davis and d’Ancona agreed that voters were ready for a more candid and grown-up public conversation. They were tired of “infantilised” politics, of expressions of false certainty. Populism, Davis said, promises that complex problems have simple solutions.

Someone in the audience suggested Corbyn could be the politician to offer that more honest approach. D’Ancona took this on: if Corbyn continued to speak as he did, he said, but was prepared to concede just “how difficult things are and how complex”, he would be “home and dry”.

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We invited Corbyn to contribute to this Christmas special but his handlers took him to GQ magazine instead, where he was compared to a bewildered grandad and had his cover portrait airbrushed. So, instead of Mr Corbyn we have his favourite poet, Ben Okri, who wrote a remarkable poem about the Grenfell Tower tragedy and now, on page 29, has written “The Unknown Hour”, a poem about Brexit.

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This has been another good year for the New Statesman. Millions of people now read our journalism every month because of the popularity of our website. The NS has evolved into being a print-digital hybrid: but we remain committed to publishing a high-quality magazine, which attempts to explain and analyse the political, geopolitical and cultural forces driving this age of upheaval. Thank you for your continued support and interest, and may I wish all our readers a very happy Christmas. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk