Tag: Neoliberalism

Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

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The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

Related

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

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It’s time the government took some lessons in the ethical use of power and influence amid the discussion about abuse

 

Image result for Daily Mail Jo Cox Image result for Daily Mail Jo CoxImage result for This is for britainImage result for Daily Mail Jo Cox

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Irresponsible racist scapegoating discourse and an utter incapacity to join the dots in the media. When Jo Cox was murdered, her killer shouted “Britain First” – the name of the political party formed by former BNP members, which has over 1.5m likes on Facebook. The Daily Mail buried the news of his conviction for murdering a sitting MP on page 30, almost as if the Mail thought it was somehow unimportant.

Minority groups are demonised and denigrated as a matter of routine and tradition – at what point does our feigning ignorance of this process turn into complicity with it? The problems we face as a society are not caused by immigration, but by socioeconomic inequality, with widespread, growing poverty, exclusion and youth unemployment faced by working class people of all ethnic backgrounds. Pointing the finger at immigrants is an attempt to mask how current government policy is actually exacerbating inequality.

The rise in targeted abuse of MPs of all stripes

It’s quite remarkable that Conservative MP, Simon Hart, claims: “Abuse of candidates and activists is “driving people away from politics,” and it’s also entirely predictable that he almost exclusively blames left wing campaigners. However, we do need to tread carefully when using labels such as “bullying” and “abuse”. We need to be careful not to allow politicians to lump reasonable opposition, challenges, legitimate democratic dialogue and action into the same category as examples of abuse.  

This is a government, after all, that has sneeringly labelled those reasonably calling for an end to austerity, adequate funding for our public services and adequate social security protection for disabled people as “unrepentant Marxists”, “Trots”, “the Hard Left”, “the Loony Left”,  and who ran almost all of their election campaign as a strategic, pointed, deeply personal smear attack on Corbyn and some of the shadow cabinet. 

The Conservatives ran an election campaign that was almost entirely about character assassinations and smearing the opposition, rather than offered policies. It as also about telling the electorate who they must and must not vote for. They seem to have forgotten that it is the public who decide who is “fit” to run the country, not the increasingly authoritarian incumbent government. We live in a democracy, after all, not a one party state.

Hart told HuffPost UK that “silence” from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour grassroots campaign organisation Momentum had meant the intimidation of candidates had increased. Labour immediately responded, expressing “deep dismay and concern at the vitriolic personal attacks” carried out and financed by the Conservative Party. A spokesperson for Momentum dismissed Hart’s criticism as a “ludicrous smear”. I’m inclined to agree. Many of the right wing tabloids have predictably tried to blame Jeremy Corbyn entirely for political attacks.

Yet the same tabloids have printed horrifically dishonest, abusive articles about Corbyn, and historically, against the Labour Party  more generally.

Image result for Labour zinoviev letter Daily Mail

One of the great political scandals of the 20th century. Shortly before the 1924 general election, a letter purporting to be from Grigory Zinoviev at the Comintern in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain appeared in the Daily Mail, along with “concerns” about a proletariat revolution.  The Conservative landslide victory four days later was in part attributed to the fake letter, which is now known to have been a forgery.

Corbyn has previously revealed that the abuse thrown at him over the course of the Labour leadership campaign has been “deeply hurtful” to his family and close friends. Yet he has consistently said: “We’re not responding in any way; we don’t do that kind of [abusive] politics.”

Hart, the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said the “general thuggishness” of the election campaign was “deterring” people from getting involved politics. 

I agree. Right wing thuggishness is writ large in screaming headlines, smear campaigns and slanderous columns. The Conservative approach to election campaigns has normalised abuse.  The nasty party probably think that positive role modelling involves the fashioning of voodoo dolls of the opposition out of plasticine to stick their malicious and vindictive pins into.

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It becomes obvious with a little scrutiny who is actually doing the attacking on a personal level. Debate and political criticism are one thing: personal commentaries, character assassinations, attacks, threats, bullying, abuse and harassment are another. I have seen that quite often, abusive tactics include manipulating people’s perceptions and diverting attention to portray themselves as the injured party, with their target being portrayed as the villain. 

The danger of portraying democratic opposition as “abuse”

The Conservatives seem to be outraged at the very idea of political opposition, to the extent that the Conservatives’ rhetoric and practices are now bordering on political totalitarianism. 

The Conservatives have a habit of stifling legitimate criticism, personalising public issues and frequently labelling the opposition’s concerns with negative terms such as “scaremongering” , “grandstanding” and “crying wolf” in what ought to be democratic debate.

This kind of discrediting  and dismissive language, and unwillingness to engage in a genuine dialogue, sidestepping accountability and transparency, sends a wider message out to the public. Cameron’s “one nation” politics has extended more of a one party state message, creating an illusion of a national consensus bandwaggon that does not exist. 

In a letter to Conservative party chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, Labour’s Ian Lavery and voter engagement spokesman Cat Smith wrote: “The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.

“Such attacks on politicians, the consequent intimidating and abusive language and threats of violence towards them online, deter many people from entering politics. Parties and politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom we strongly disagree. The Conservative Party has instead promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national campaign.

“Abuse against candidates on social media is completely unacceptable. The Conservative Party perpetrated this on an industrial scale by spending millions of pounds to post highly personalised and nasty attack adverts on voters’ Facebook timelines without their permission.”

They say that the Labour party “fought a positive, hopeful campaign” and insisted that all its MPs ran campaigns based on its policies rather than personal attacks.

All of this is certainly verified by the televised debates and media coverage of the election campaigns.Image result for Jeremy Corbyn's positive election campaign

On Monday, Theresa May asked whether Jeremy Corbyn was “doing enough in response to complaints of intimidation” and said she was “surprised at any party leader who’s not willing to condemn that”. Yet Corbyn has publicly condemned personal abuse many times.

May has ordered a review of the law after saying she had been shocked at the number of colleagues who had talked to her about intimidation and harassment during the campaign. It’s notable and telling, however, that the mainstream media’s role in the general election campaigns won’t be included in the remit of this inquiry.

I deeply suspect that this inquiry will be about the hijacking of abuse from the right: it won’t be about an intention to genuinely deal with cross-party cases of abuse to eliminate it, but it will  be about an ambition to weaponise abuse, using it as a political prop to attack the left and silence criticism.  

By emphasising online abuse only, and ignoring the elephant in the room – the hateful right wing media and the Conservatives’ own abusive approach to public debate – the Conservatives are attempting to paint the entire left as being defined by viciousness and hatred, intolerant of opposition, threatening even, according to this narrative  –  and that of course will be used to justify why they must be kept from power.

That’s absolute hypocrisy, indicating clearly that the Conservatives see the mainstream media as an asset, rather than as a source of aggressive and divisive right wing ideological narratives.

It may also be used to justify more repressive reform to social media. May has already pledged to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government. I can’t help wondering if that will entail a “management” of “left wing bias”. Who can forget Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic and hysterical  “monitoring” of the BBC for any “bias”.

As I write, every single right wing broadsheet has a deeply misleading published article portraying the left as being entirely responsible for abuse of (all) MPs. Yet the report was about abuse directed at BOTH Conservatives and Labour MPs.

Image result for Hard left abuse

The Conservative Party have cheer-led the personal abuse people on the left receive. The Tories made a strategic decision to discredit, smear and delegitimise the official opposition, portraying Labour’s left supporters as “extremists”, “dangerous”, and “terrorist sympathisers”. Such an attack tactic has some very chilling and profoundly anti-democratic implications, because it leaves the left exposed as a dangerous internal enemy, which legitimises radical right wingers’ belief that the left needs to be “eliminated”.

The “abuse” accusation is one of many techniques used by the right to police the boundaries of “acceptable” political thought.

The right and the dangers of dog whistle politics

It is worth remembering that it was a Labour MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far right terrorist. This has been linked to the rhetoric employed by hardcore right wing Brexit campaign. Others, including myself, have linked it with a growth in wider social prejudiceand the social divisions which have been politically fostered, motivated and manipulated by the Conservatives. Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle racism and negative campaigning strategies have been a key feature of elections over recent years and have normalised below the radar “coded” racist messaging, with the inbuilt “safeguard” of plausible deniability.  

Dog whistling is designed to trigger previously indoctrinated prejudice, bigotry and  hatred without being recognised by outsiders as hateful speech in prejudiced communities. The legitimising of sentiment which has previously been considered inappropriate is one of Crosby’s trademarks, and this approach has steadily pushed at public moral boundaries, making hate speech and hate crime much more likely. 

The philosopher Jennifer Saul has how the linguistic drift of increasingly intolerant speech can lead to racist violence. As we become habituated to a subject of speech, our standard of what is acceptable to say (or not say) shifts, which in turn opens up possibilities for how we may act.

Of course intolerant speech is that which creates categories of outgrouped others, and this process of othering hasn’t been confined to ethnic minorities. The Conservatives have also stigmatised disabled people, social security claimants more generally, trade unions, public sector workers, among others and have systematically demonised and personally discredited critics, opposition (including charities and academics), and especially, those on the left.

The government has consistently sent out a broader message, in the form of a series of coded emotive appeals and sometimes, quite explicitly stated, that the left has/will take your taxes and give it to “undeserving” minorities. Those “minorities” are disabled people, people in low paid work, people who have lost their job, as well as asyum seekers and migrants.

As opposed to undeserving millionaires and rogue multinationals.

The Conservatives have normalised bullying and intimidation to silence dissent

Conservative MP Anna Soubry has spoken out at the Conservatives’ “bully boy tactics” employed against Mark Carney by some of her Tory colleagues. Carney came in for attacks from senior Brexiteers like Michael Gove and William Hague, while other pro-Leave campaigners have called on him to be sacked as governor of the Bank of England. In the run-up to the EU referendum, Tories accused Carney of “interfering” in the campaign by his simple and evidenced warning about the economic effects of a vote to leave.

Speaking to Sky News, former business minister Soubry said: “This is what I mean about almost bully boy tactics, this idea that you just slag people off and then you go to some of our newspapers and they join in this very unpleasant campaign which means people like Mark Carney don’t have any defence, they can’t really come out and fight their corner as they should do.

“He shouldn’t be attacked in the way that he was. He’s done a great job. He was universally recognised as being a real coup for our Bank of England, for our country. I’m just sad that he seems to be going early, but I’m delighted he’s staying.

“We all seem to have almost taken leave of our senses in this country.”

The language mirrored that used in an article for LabourList from Rebecca Long-Bailey, then the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

She wrote at the time: “That a committed public servant like Dr Carney has been the subject of briefings, on and off the record, questioning his fitness for the role – when he himself has no opportunity to respond – is an indictment of the toxic atmosphere now brewing inside the Conservative party.

Denigrating reasonable criticism and monstering campaigns for social justice

Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green criticised “irresponsible scaremongering” by Labour and insisted the Tories “will always look after the most vulnerable”, following legitimate concerns raised by the opposition about the impact of the proposed dementia tax and cuts to winter fuel payments for the elderly. The United Nations inquiry into the Conservatives’ grave and systematic abuse of disabled people’s human rights certainly doesn’t support Green’s claims. He said: “At the heart of this report lies an outdated view of disability which is patronising and offensive. We strongly refute its findings.”

However, it is the government that hold a deeply patronisingoutdated and discriminatory view of disability, and they are the ones dismissing the concerns raised over and over by disabled people who pushed to instigate and evidence the inquiry in the first place, because the government have disgracefully and systematically marginalised us, and consistently refused to listen to our grave concerns about the harms, distress and premature deaths that Conservative welfare policies are increasingly correlated with. 

Hart says: “I wrote to every MP at the beginning of last week to say would they like to come up with examples of where this has been happening and the only examples I’ve had are of attacks by the left on the right. If there are others, I haven’t heard of them.” 

“I know a lot of Labour MPs have been subject to quite nasty abuse over a number of years now. It’s not exclusively left-wing attacking right-wing, or left-wing attacking center, but there is certainly more evidence of that than there is the contrary.”

Perhaps Hart doesn’t read the tabloids. Or listen to the malicious comments of his colleagues made frequently during election campaigns.

Try as I might, I just simply can’t imagine Jeremy Corbyn calling Boris Johnson a “mutton-headed old mugwump”, or a “benign herbivore”. Nor can I imagine him dismissing United Nations rapporteurs as “loopy Brazilian lefties” or “partisan marxists”.

Tory MP Stewart Jackson tweeted that Miss Rolnick was a ¿loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence masquerading as a serious UN official¿

The Conservatives don’t take independent criticism of the adverse effects of their draconian policies very well. However, the UK is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which means that Ms Rolnik’s independent findings should carry weight within the British justice system and prompt the government to abandon this most inhumane of policies. Rather than approach this public issue with impartiality, government ministers decided instead to launch a disgraceful personal attack on Raquel Rolnik.

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I condemn personal attacks and abuse on MPs of any political stripe. However, it seems to me that the Conservatives are launching a gaslighting campaign, with the sole intention of diverting attention from their own appalling track record on systematic abuse and bullying, and to attempt to further discredit the left.  

What about the abuse directed by right wingers on social media?  Some have claimed that Corbyn supporters are a “cult”, painting a picture of Corbyn’s supporters as “blind” followers of a strange doctrine. It links us with some of the worst instances in political history and develops a narrative that positions Corbyn and his supporters as “dangerous”. It is a poisonous term that should be deployed with caution. But sadly, that hasn’t stopped Corbyn’s opponents.

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This tweet has now been deleted. It’s from Financial Times’ political columnist Janan Ganesh, who seems to have realised his is a difficult narrative to push, as the likes of Stephen Hawkings, Noam Chomsky and much of the academic world explicitly endorse Corbyn’s project.

The Telegraph has patronisingly declared that young people who voted Labour are “deluded about Jeremy Corbyn, and about much else besides”. With the likes of Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen complaining: “The BBC will do everything they can to get their hero Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Now with things like this year’s Glastonbury, it’s becoming ever more blatant.

“They are at the stage where if the BBC give it one more push, we will end up with a Marxist in No 10.”

 “Marxist” is used as a term of abuse here. Yet in this context, a marxist is simply someone who wants to adequately fund public services, raise our standard of living and introduce a progressive tax system  – something that the Conservatives have deemed “reckless” and only possible with the help of a magic money tree. Mind you, that same magic money tree has been supporting the millionaires in handouts for the past few years.

At the same time that George Osborne told us that we needed to make cuts, rolling out his austerity programme that targeted the poorest citizens, he awarded millionaires £107, 000 each per year in the form of a handout tax cut. 

You have to worry at this particularly authoritarian comment, too: “If the BBC feel Labour are potentially close to power, any semblance of impartiality can be disregarded because with the Left, the ends always justify the means.” 

The BBC’s coverage of the event does not indicate “bias”, it’s simply coverage of an event. In a healthy democracy, that should never even be an issue. It’s not the BBC that decides voter’s intentions. It is the voters. It is the nation that decides what is in the “national interest” not the Conservatives.

Labour’s pledge to make university education free was claimed to be “the £11 billion bribe”, according to the Daily Mail. Unlike, for instance, the £350 million “save the NHS” lie plastered on Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign bus. Or the Liberal Democrats’ giant cardboard cutout promise that tuition fees would absolutely never in a million years go up to 9K per year. Nope. Honest…

Since when was an inclusive manifesto considered “bribery”? Have we travelled so far down the road of Conservative authoritarianism, which has normalised the politics of stigma and exclusion, that reaching out and democratically engaging with politically betrayed, marginalised social groups to acknowledge and reflect their needs is considered so baffling and alien?

The language use that has been used to describe people exercising a democratic right to protest peacefully against government policies, variously described as “mobs”, a “rabble” and “thugs”.  As a disabled activist I have been called an “extremist” by the Conservatives and their supporters.

In 2015, a campaign group working to protect the NHS criticised Employment Minister Priti Patel, after she allegedly described members that gathered at her office – some of whom were elderly and others were disabled – as a “thuggish gang”.

Members of the People’s NHS gathered outside Patel’s constituency HQ in Witham, Essex, to urge her to protect the NHS against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships which they fear will lead to the health service being privatised. A photo of the protest shows around a dozen peaceful demonstrators holding a banner reading “fight for our NHS” and protecting themselves from the rain with umbrellas.   

Patel responded to the demonstration by writing to Unite union boss Len McCluskey, who she wrongly believed was heading the campaign. The letter read, according to The Sunday Mirror, that the woman who works at the Witham Conservative Association office “felt harassed, frightened and intimated” by “a thuggish gang of People’s NHS campaigners”. Patel went on to accuse the group of “intimidation and harassment”. 

However, someone in a position of power using such derogatory labels to discredit, smear and pathologise people raising legitimate criticism is intimidation, harassment and bullying. We live in a democracy, and the right to protest is a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. Whether the authoritarian Conservatives like it or not.  From the historical UK Labour movement, civil rights protesters such as Rosa Parks in 1950s America, to the 60,000 participants in Gandhi’s Salt march, people throughout history have chosen to resist injustice because, as Rosa herself said, they’re “tired of giving in”. In contemporary Britain, disabled people are fighting a battle of life and death proportions. People are dying as a consequence of draconian policies. No-one is listening, so we protest.

The Conservatives fear civil unrest, yet every Tory government prompts protest because of their grossly injust, punitive policies. Protest is what happens when governments refuse to listen. It’s what happens when policies are non-inclusive and nasty. It’s what happens when ideologies are manifested, causing people distress and harm.

Simon Hart has complained that almost half his election campaign boards were defaced, stolen or damaged, adding that he and other MPs received abuse on social media “on an almost daily basis”.

“These are things that have significant financial consequences and it’s driving people away from politics, even on the fringes, at a time when actually it’s never been more important that they’re part of politics,” he said.

The importance of practicing what you preach, and keeping your own house in order

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However, Hart seems to have forgotten all about the details of his own election campaign, and some of the issues arising because of his election boards being placed without permission on private property. In fact one of the Tory MP’s own campaigners attacked a local resident, slamming his van door on the man, and hurting his arm, before driving at him – in a row over Hart’s election boards.

John Kilcoyne, a Conservative campaigner for Hart, infuriated local Adam Morres, after he put up signs promoting Hart in a field near the local’s home in Manorbier, Wales, back in May. Morres took them down and billed the local Conservative party for rent and damages – but then caught Kilcoyne putting them back up a day later.

The video appears to show the volunteer smacking the villager in the arm with his van door – before repeatedly DRIVING his van at him along a rural road. The police arrived moments later and are now investigating the incident.

Morres said: “Normally, I would choose who to vote for based on their policies, but in this instance I will be choosing based on the party I think has employees who aren’t going to attack me.”

The furore began on Sunday, May 7, when Morres was out for a walk with his ex-partner in the fields that she rents for her horses. They spotted two blue signs supporting incumbent MP Simon Hart nailed to a fence post inside the field. Morres says that he phoned the Electoral Commission who he said told him they could be removed, so he took them down the next day.

He invoiced Camarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservatives £50 for rent and damages.

“The damages are in case out neighbours thought the signs meant we were Conservative voters,” he added sarcastically. 

He claims John Kilcoyne – named as the seconder on Mr Hart’s 2015 election nomination document, came to both his home and his partner’s house. Kilcoyne claimed he had permission of the land owner to put the signs up, and left. Moments later  spotted him back next to his ex’s field getting new “Simon Hart” signs out of his van and the two men rowed.

The video appears to show the pair arguing before the volunteer sharply pulls his van door onto Morres’ arm before mocking him, saying: “Watch out, watch out.” He denied his actions. With a smirk.

Morres phoned the police and when he stood in front of the van to record the licence plate, claims Kilcoyne repeatedly drove at him. 

The footage on the video – taken moments before police arrived – appears to show the car inching towards him as he moves away across the road before driving off.

Astonishingly, Morres woke up the next day to find the signs had been reinstated.

“The police have told us not to touch them in case they get damaged and Simon Hart claims criminal damage,” he said. 

Dyfed-Powys Police said: “The force received a report of an assault without injury at approximately 9.40am on Tuesday, May 9.

“The incident took place at Wheelers Way, Manorbier. The investigation is ongoing.”

The Welsh Conservative Party and Simon Hart refused to comment. Kilcoyne, from Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire, said: “Have you spoken to Mr Hart?

“I’m in the same position as Mr Hart. There is a police officer dealing with it. I have nothing at all to add.”

Meanwhile, Wales Office minister Guto Bebb said he had also been a victim of online intimidation, and has surprisingly accused serving police officers of being among those who have abused him.

Ah yes, the sensitive Guto Bebb, who dismissed Dylan Barlow’Asperger’s syndrome as a “sob story” in a series of emails after his constituent raised questions on foreign matters.  

The MP for Aberconwy, North Wales, wrote: “If you have mental health issues then you should possibly refrain from commenting in the public domain since it might create problems for you.”

I’m disabled because of illness. I am a campaigner that supports Labour’s policies. I have had a lot of abuse, ranging from name-calling such as “leftard” , “trot”, “loony leftist”, “scrounger” , “lazy” to organised hate and smear campaigns, malicious communications that have used my social media account details and my photograph, resulting in death threats, rape threats, threats to my family and a threat from Combat 18. I involved the police at the time. I have also received very offensive comments calling for disabled people to be shot.  

disability hate speech

Conservative rhetoric, policy practices and in particular, their anti-welfare campaign which has been amplified by the media, has systematically dehumanised and scapegoated disabled people and migrants, and has contributed significantly to my experiences of abuse these last few years.

Divisive rhetoric, such as Cameron’s “scroungers and strivers” dichotomy, and traditional, embedded Conservative prejudices (based on class, ableism, economic productivity, ethnicity and gender) have added to the problems of social division,  encouraging and legitimising hate speech and hate crime.

The unedifying sight of Conservative ministers’ sneering contempt and laughter when they hear accounts of people suffering hardships and harm because of their policies in parliament isn’t a rare event. The persistent denial of a “causal link” between policy, hardship and distress, and refusal to investigate an established correlation between policy and hardship – all of this sends out a negative message to the wider public.

The message is that hate speech, bullying and abuse of marginalised social groups is permitted, and by gaslighting – negating or attempting to invalidate those group’s common experiences of harm and distress – the Conservatives have othered, isolated and dehumanised them.

A major contributing factor to the increase in bullying is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against marginalised social groups, such as disabled and unemployed people, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices. Their policies embed a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups. This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the Department for work and pensions and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group.

People affected by those behaviours are then encouraged to blame other marginalised groups – migrants and asylum seekers, people who are “not really” disabled, and others politically deemed “undeserving”. This creates a hierarchy of needs, when the reality is simply that people have different but equally pressing needs for basic support. Everyone, after all, needs food, fuel and shelter. Without being able to fulfil those basic needs, we cannot fulfil higher level psychosocial needs.

As authority figures and role models, the government’s behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange and mutual respect. Indeed, the prime minister sneers at rationality and does not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead she employs the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This in turn gives wider society permission and approval to do the same.

At prime minister’s questions, Cameron found it hard to rein in his Flashman reflex. His answers were frequently ever more sneering and personal, determined to characterise his political rival as weak and useless. It was not pleasant to watch the jabbing finger and the reddened face, especially when the Tory backbenchers behind him join in with bullying jeers.

Even Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former aide has accused the political establishment of bullying Jeremy Corbyn after he was elected as Labour leader in what he described as “incredibly unattractive” behaviour.

It’s dangerous behaviour

Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. The scapegoaters’ target always experiences a terrible sense of being personally edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the bully inserted into public accounts of their character, isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal.

Another tactic commonly used by Conservatives is projection – a defense mechanism used to displace responsibility of one’s negative behaviour and traits by attributing them to someone else. It ultimately acts as a diversion that avoids ownership and accountability. Simon Hart’s emphasis on “left wing bullying” is an attempt to steer us away from his own party’s entrenched prejudices, draconian policies, bullying practices and the hectoring approach to dialogue and debate.

The Conservatives have played the “blameshifting game” on many occasions over the past seven years. The objectives of the game of course are that it simplistically dichotomises issues, turning debate into often diversionary, personalised, simplistic arguments of reductive one upmanship: for the Conservatives, it’s about winning  and getting your own way, while others lose and are also blamed for everything that’s wrong with them. Ad hominem arguments have been normalised by Conservatives.

Image result for disability stigmatising messages in the newspapers

It’s time for the government to consider the impact of negative role modelling – Conservatives regularly use abusive language when challenged. Politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom they may strongly disagree. However, the Conservatives seem to regard opposition and challenges as an irritating inconvenience rather than as an essential feature of a functioning democracy.

The Conservative Party has promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national election campaigns, and has used stigma as a justification for extremely punitive policies that target marginalised groups. 

Bullying and abuse within the Conservative party

Let’s not forget poor Elliott Johnson: the young Conservative who was destroyed by the party he loved, and subsequently took his own life in 2015, aged just 21, as a result of blackmail and persistent bullying. Earlier this year, the Conservative party were accused of ­withholding evidence from police about the death of the young party activist who said he was systematically bullied. Others have since come forward – a further 13 alleged victims of Mark Clarke came forward, the so-called “Tatler Tory,” over a 20-month period, and allegations included six accusations of “sexually inappropriate behaviour”.

Clarke, who was appointed by the party to run its RoadTrip2015 election campaign, came under heavy scrutiny after Elliott Johnson, a young Tory activist, took his own life in September 2015 and named Clarke as his tormentor in a suicide note.

Then there was the Tory MP who “faked” a death threat, accused of threatening to sack a member of staff if she took four weeks off work sick – as advised by her doctor. 

Telford MP Lucy Allan was accused of launching a “vicious” verbal attack on a female staff member who phoned in sick. Allan accused the alleged bullying victim Arianne Plumbly of having an “alcohol problem,” dismissing her claims to be ill as “pathetic”. In a recording of the telephone call handed to the Evening Standard,  Allan is heard telling the alleged bullying target Arianne Plumbly: “I’m not paying you for that then; it’s ridiculous” and told her she had “pissed around on my life”. 

The Nasty Party and dehumanising language

Rosemary Carroll, a Conservative councillor, shared a post about a man asking for benefits for his pet dog, making very offensive racist comparisons.

She was Mayor of Pendle until last month but was suspended from her party after the post appeared on her account, pending an inquiry.

The post

Only last week, a Tory Brexiteer described the UK leaving the EU without a deal as a “real n****r in the woodpile” at a meeting of eurosceptics in Central London. 

Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot since 2010, made the astonishing remark while discussing what financial services deal the UK could strike with Brussels after 2019.

The phrase she used is from the nineteenth Century, and refers to slavery. It is thought the phrase arose in reference to instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood.

The origin of the phrase is from the practice of transporting pulpwood on special railroad cars. In the era of slavery, the pulpwood cars were built with an outer frame with the wood being stacked inside in rows and stacks. Given the nature of the cars, it was possible to smuggle persons in the pile itself, giving rise to the phrase.  

In July 2008, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, was urged to sack Conservative peer Lord Dixon-Smith, who said in the House of Lords that concerns about government housing legislation were “the n***er in the woodpile”. Dixon-Smith said the phrase had “slipped out without my thinking”, and that “It was common parlance when I was younger”. 

Despite using the racist term, none of Morris’s fellow panelists, including Tory MPs Bill Cash and John Redwood, reacted at the time. 

Racism isn’t the only traditional Conservative prejudice. Who could forget David Freud’s offensive comments, made when he was a Conservative Welfare Reform Minister, that some disabled people are not worth the full national minimum wage”  and that some “could only be paid £2 an hour.” Cameron claimed the disgraceful comments made by Lord Freud at the Tory conference do not represent the views of government. 

However, his government’s punitive austerity measures and the welfare “reforms” tell us a very different story. The comments came to light after they were disclosed by Ed Miliband during Prime Minister’s Questions

Freud’s comments are simply a reflection of a wider implicit and fundamental Social Darwinism underpinning Tory ideology, and even Tim Montgomerie, who founded the Conservative­Home site has conceded that: “Conservative rhetoric often borders on social Darwinism […] and has lost a sense of social justice.”  

David Freud was made to apologise for simply being a Tory in public. The Conservatives have systematically blamed poor people for their poverty rather than acknowledge that poverty arises as a consequence of political decision-making and policies that financially penalise the poorest while handing out rewards to the wealthiest

Conservative policies are not only entirely ideologically-driven, they reflect traditional Tory prejudices. We have a government that uses words like workshy to describe marginalised social groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor people, unemployed people, disabled people, asylum seekers and migrants. If that isn’t bullying and abuse, I don’t know what is.

One Tory councillor, Alan Mellins – called for the “extermination of gypsies”, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. Philip Davies has also said that the national minimum wage is “more a hindrance than a help” for disabled people, and proposed that we are paid less. A Conservative deputy mayor – retired GP, Owen Lister –  said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.”

Let’s not forget Boris Johnson’s grossly racist comments describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in the Telegraph in 2002. He only apologised when he first ran for London mayor in 2008.

And Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin also escaped disciplinary action after it was revealed that he had said black people have “bad moral attitudes” when he was a top adviser to Thatcher. He actually said that any government schemes to help black people would be wasted in “the disco and drugs trade.” 

In August, 201, Dover Conservative councillor Bob Frost describes rioters as “jungle bunnies.” He lost his teaching job but the Tories suspended him for just two months. In 2014, he referred to the prospective Middle Eastern buyers of Dover port as “sons of camel drivers.” No action was taken.

In January 2013, Enfield Conservative councillor Chris Joannides compared Muslim children to black bin bags in a Facebook post. In April 2014, Barnet councillor Tom Davey complained online about “benefit claiming scum”, and said that it might be easier to find a job if he were “a black female wheelchair-bound amputee who is sexually attracted to other women.” He was not disciplined by the party.  

These are NOT “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, just as long as they aren’t made in public. We need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms”, the cuts aimed at disabled people s support and services – which were unthinkable before 2010 – and tresearch the consequences of austerity for the most vulnerable citizens, those with the “least broad shoulders” and the least to lose – to understand that these comments reflect accurately how Conservatives actually think

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That any of this is considered acceptable behaviour by a government – who serve as public role models – is an indication of just how far our society has regressed in terms of human rights and our democratic ideals of equality and diversity. This is a government that has purposefully seeded and permitted social prejudice in order to gain support and power. 

The Tory creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable and protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of de-empathising the population, manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Tories’ crass neoliberal welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision, for the public, which the public have paid for via taxes and national insurance.

At the same time that austerity was imposed on the poorest citizens, the millionaires were awarded a £107,000 each per year tax cut. It seems only some of us have to “live within our means”. 

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism and behavioural economic theories), all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision. Discriminatory political practices and rhetoric send out a message to the public, and that permits wider prejudice, hate speech, hate crime and discrimination.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of  constructing deviant welfare stereotypes, folk devils and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public. 

The growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create profound psychological trauma, hermetic material and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.  

Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to a socioeconomic Darwinism, a kind of economic enclosure: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us. 

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarialand hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, freedoms, wellbeing, democratic inclusion and social conditions that support all of this. 

Neoliberal socioeconomic organisation has perpetuated hierarchies of human worth, and pitched social groups against one another in a fight for resources.

I condemn all abuse, be it from the left or right of the political spectrum.

However, it’s time the government took some lessons in the ethical use of power and influence, democratic inclusion and accountability.

pie-wealth

The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

Ken Loach Criticises BBC’s “Disgusting” Political Bias Ahead of U.K. Election

More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

MPs speak out about ‘sinister’ election abuse

Death threats and daily hate: MPs recall abuse they have received

Not one day more: Tory councillor suspended for sneering racism and vindictive Tory anti-welfarism

Some of the lies politicians and the media have told about Jeremy Corbyn 

Tory attack ad misrepresents Corbyn views on IRA

A couple more lies that politicians and the media have told about Jeremy Corbyn – editing someone’s character is abusive

From the Zinoviev letter to the Labour party coup – the real enemy within

Conservatives, cruelty and the collective unconscious

 


 

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Grenfell, inequality and the Conservatives’ bonfire of red tape

Residents were trapped "screaming for their lives" as flames raged through a 27-storey tower block in Notting Hill in the early hours today

The Grenfell Tower fire reflects a colossal betrayal of working class people’s trust by the state. The Conservatives have emphasised “economic growth” at the expense of citizen’s welfare in their policies since taking office in 2010. This is a government that has rewarded the propertied class and punished the renting class (by inflicting policies such as the bedroom tax, and the welfare cap, for example). It’s a government that values and supports profiteering landlords, who have lobbied against essential safeguarding regulation, and one that has also imposed massive local authority budget cuts. 

It’s estimated that there are more than 700 tower blocks in London. These range from the brand new luxury apartments to the post-war council-owned buildings which were seen as a convenient cure to problems caused by the crumbling and unsanitary 19th Century slums.

Around 8% of Londoners now live in tower blocks. Some of the flats are bought for millions; others are relatively low-cost social housing, rented from a local council at a fraction of the private rate. Grenfell Tower itself was designed in 1967, building started in 1972 and finished in 1974.

Originally built as municipal housing as part of the slum clearances of the 1960s, it had 120 one and two-bedroom flats over 20 of its 24 storeys, and was renovated in 2016.

Grenfell House is in a neighbourhood ranked among the most deprived 10% in England.

The BBC’s Bethan Bell says

“Just two miles away – or four stops along the Circle/Hammersmith and City line – is 3 Merchant Square, a 21-storey tower that is part of a new development around Paddington Basin. The contemporary block was finished in 2016 and holds 60 apartments over 15 storeys.

It’s a different world. The penthouse apartment was sold for £7.5m. One-bedroom flats are at least £1m.

Surrounded by restaurants and bars, workers and residents can lounge on deckchairs on a newly-built floating park. Lunchtime yoga sessions are held and there’s a luxury fitness club.

There’s an enormous fountain and a bridge created by renowned designer Thomas Heatherwick, a nursery and winter garden.

But nice though these peripheries undoubtedly are, they don’t keep people safe from fire. For that, we must have a look at the specifications of the apartments in the tower. 

Once you get past the sales brochure description of 3 Merchant Square’s walnut cutlery drawer inserts and integral wine coolers, the adjustable mood lighting and heated bathroom walls, you come to the fire safety details: Every flat has not only ceiling mounted smoke detectors but sprinklers.

The International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA) says that automatic fire sprinkler systems are the single most effective fire protection measure available, and are able to make up for a wide range of other fire protection deficiencies.

There has never been a multiple loss of life from a fire developing in a building protected by a properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler system. While fire sprinkler systems have been required in new high-rise residential buildings in England since 2007, it is not compulsory to retrofit them into existing buildings. So Grenfell Tower had none.”

It’s a tale of two cities.

The former chief fire officer Ronnie King, honorary secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue – which had recommended fitting sprinklers to buildings to save lives – has said the regulations “badly need updating” and “three successive ministers have not done it”.

“My own thinking is there was the red tape challenge and they don’t really want to put regulation on to businesses, adding a burden.

“It’s one of those that if you bring in a new regulation, you have got to give three up to get it.” 

This echoes my own comments yesterday

In 2012, David Cameron vowed to “cut back on the health and safety legislation “monster”, and to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.” The Conservatives’ Cutting Red Tape programme allows Business to tell Government how it can cut red tape and reduce bureaucratic barriers to growth and productivity within their sector.” The Tories boast these “big successes” in getting rid of “unnecessary bureaucracy”: 

  • Over 2,400 regulations scrapped through the Red Tape Challenge
  • Saving home builders and councils around £100m by reducing 100s of locally applied housing standards to 5 national standards
  • £90m annual savings to business from Defra reducing environmental guidance by over 80%
  • Businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from 6 hours to 45 minutes, allowing managers to quickly get back to their day job. 

Among others.  

Apparently, “Cutting Red Tape wants to work with business, for business.” I don’t see any balanced democratic representation and reflection of public needs. Back in 2015, business Secretary Vince Cable and Business and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock announced that “better enforcement of regulation” is saving business more than £40 million every year. What that phrase actually means is not “better enforcement” – it’s deregulation. The Tories are masters of Doublespeak. 

The Focus on Enforcement review programme, which asks companies to identify poor “enforcement practices” that “hold them back”, has benefited around one million businesses and boosted growth in 9 vital sectors of the economy from coastal developments to childcare. And building. 

This “builds on government action to scrap or reform regulatory rules which has saved firms some £10 billion over this parliament.” It has also undermined health and safety legislation, consideration of which has a direct impact on the welfare of public. Conservative ideology prioritises private profit over human needs. New Right neoliberalism is all about privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and a “small state” commitment entailing reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.

The problem is that the government regards regulations as an inconvenience – as raising unnecessary obstacles to free market economics – business, growth, competition and “innovation”, while disregarding the fact that regulations actually serve important social objectives. 

The Conservatives have long argued that “red tape” impedes freedom and “damages productivity”. They have glibly assured us that the UK would be a better place with a lot of deregulation and fewer bureacratic “barriers” to business. The 2010-15 Tory Health and Safety “reforms” (that word is always a Conservative euphemism for cuts) have been motivated, for example, by a belief that: “good health and safety is important, but the burden of excessive health and safety rules and regulations on business had become too great and a damaging compensation culture was stifling innovation and growth. We want to protect people in the workplace while reducing the burden of unnecessary health and safety rules and regulations on businesses.”

The “red tape” that the Conservatives regard with such disdain consists of laws that provide essential public protections and rights that prioritise citizen’s lives. The freedoms being protected by this government are those of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit employees and the public, of landlords to exploit their tenants and, to nick a sentence from George Monbiot, of industry to use the planet as its dustbin.

2012 report by the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) concluded that fire sprinklers could be retrofitted with tenants in place at a cost of about £1,150 a flat. Since the 24-storey Grenfell Tower contained 120 flats, it would have worked out at £138,000. That’s significantly less than the £2.6m spent on the cosmetic cladding and replacement windows

Architect and fire expert Sam Webb said: “We are still wrapping post-war high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.

I really don’t think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government’s mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren’t good enough.”

Some of these issues were raised in a report following a fatal fire at a tower block in 2009 in Camberwell, in which six people were killed.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, said his predecessor in the role had accepted the report’s recommendations and put them into action.

He said: “The coroner did not recommend new planning regulations. The coroner recommended a change in the guidance. There is a lot of information out there and it is right that it is independently looked at by a judge-led inquiry.” 

When asked whether the government would retrofit sprinkler systems to tower blocks, he said: “I don’t think we can immediately jump to the conclusion that sprinklers is the issue here. We will do whatever it takes.”

An associate pastor of Notting Hill Community Church, Danny Vance, says “the poor are constantly neglected” in the city.

He said: “The disparity between rich and poor in this city is disgusting. This would not have happened to the £5m flats around the corner” [from the Grenfell tower].

Theresa May has announced a £5 million emergency fund for the survivors of the Grenfell inferno, amid angry protests over the government’s lack of appropriate reaction to the tragedy, and what survivors see as the slow emergence of information with regard to loved ones and friends who are still missing.

It’s worth considering that the Conservatives consistently spend close to the £19m general election spending limit on their campaigns. In comparison with the funding offered to people and their families who have lost loved ones and friends, their homes, and all of their belongings, it highlights a problem with our democracy. It is one of political priority. Much more money is spent by the Conservatives on staying in power than it is on pressing social need, reflecting the somewhat corrupt priorities of this government. 

The Labour party have said that the £5 million isn’t enough. It really isn’t. 

Grenfell Tower stands as a dreadful symbol of the failings of austerity for which the Conservatives are culpable. It’s an emblem of the intentional Conservative attacks on our poorer citizens. Tory MPs have sneeringly  rejected housing regulation; they implemented cuts to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; they disregarded the coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council have regularly blocked its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxieties

For many, the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower is a terrible and tragic monument to inequality. It stands as an awful accusation. It should not be the case that society’s most disadvantaged citizens suffer most from the mistakes of the powerful. The state should protect and value citizens’ lives – each life has equal worth, it is equally precious – and not remain indifferent to people who complain that their home is potentially a death trap, neglecting their fundamental concerns and needs. We live in a society where our government values property rights over more fundamental human rights. It’s a democracy for property-owners, but not for tenants.

Danny Dorling has highlighted that black and minority ethnic people in social housing are disproportionately housed in flats, to the extent that most black children in London and Birmingham are housed above the sixth floor. This is not to do with a shortage of housing, but is a reflection of the fact that not only are ethnic minorities more likely to be working-class by wage and occupation, but they experience discrimination – tacitly or blatantly – when allocated housing. Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour MPs are absolutely right to call for the use of empty homes in Kensington to rehouse locally those made homeless, and experiencing such devastating losses, by the fire. 

We live in a society where it’s become normal and somehow acceptable that the privileged class can buy their safety, their security, rights and their legal representation, while many working class people and those citizens who are vulnerable have none of these. 

Grenfell Tower is a charred and bitter testament to how our poorest citizens are placed at risk because we live in a society that values unfettered private profiteering, no matter what the cost to ordinary people, and the superficial and appearance over what really matters – people’s lives. The deadly cladding was added as cheaply as possible to improve the view for others, while the sprinklers, working alarm and fire extinguishers that would have saved lives were omitted. 

Emergency services personnel on top of Grenfell Tower in west London after the fire 
Related

Grenfell is a horrific consequence of a Conservative ‘leaner and more efficient state

The Conservatives are forced to end austerity because they face a turning tide and electoral extinction

London protests as they happened: Demonstrators demand justice for Grenfell victims after day of fury and sorrow

 


 

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Conservatives forced to say they’ll ‘end austerity’ because they face electoral extinction

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I think it’s safe to say that election opinion polls are no more useful than paying heed to Boris Johnson on a brandy binge, solemnly casting the runes and making wide ranging wishful but witless declarations. Theresa May made a decision to hold a snap election because Labour were polling badly, she saw an opportunity to increase the Conservative’s majority. She looks rather weak, wobbly and vapid now.

David Davies has loyally taken one on the chin, claiming it was his idea that May called the very ill-advised snap election. I didn’t know that Mr and Mrs May took him on walking holidays with them. That’s a bit weird and implies a kind of kinkiness that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Two of May’s close senior advisors were pushed onto their swords, too, in a bid to divert the blame for such a dreadful election result for the Tories. I wasn’t aware that the government permitted spin artists to write their policies as well as putting them through the PR machine. Still, the privileged class have always sacked their servants whenever they need to re-channel their own accountability.

I’d be more convinced that a sincere change in Tory campaign approach was due by the sacking of the wedgie and dog whistle king, the lizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby. He should go and take Murdoch with him.

The right-wing tabloids also announced the Conservative aim to “destroy” the Labour party, in savage, squawking and despotic headlines such as “Squash the saboteurs” and “Blue murder”. Brendan O’Neill gleefully announced the end of the Labour party in the Spectator back in February. The midstream media predictions and Tory plan backfired spectacularly, though many on the left were very anxious at the time.  

Media soundbites bite back hard

Here is a small sample of comments from journalists, now having to eat the toxic bile they spat out, wearing their disguise of professional contrarians. They were just glorified and well-paid trolls after all, attempting to stage-manage our democracy:

Jason Cowley, The New Statesman, March 30

“The stench of decay and failure coming from the Labour Party is now overwhelming. From the beginning we were opposed to the Corbyn leadership but, in the spirit of plural debate, happy to open our pages to him and his confidants. Our view was that Corbyn was ill-equipped to be leader of the opposition and, indeed, an aspirant prime minister…There was nothing in his record to suggest that he could remake social democracy or under­stand, let alone take advantage of, the post-liberal turn in our politics. The decline of Labour pre-dated Corbyn’s leadership, of course, but he and his closest allies have accelerated its collapse into irrelevance.”

Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times, April 30

“Corbyn’s cadre await the rout with open arms. A growing sense of puzzlement pervades Conservative campaign headquarters. Is their traditional Labour opponent at general elections really fighting to win? Or is something else going on? Obviously the individual Labour candidates will be trying their utmost to get the most votes they can. But the Tories have the peculiar sense that the Labour leadership is not properly trying.”

Dan Hodges, Daily Mail, April 29

“I’d been hearing increasingly wild stories about feedback on the doorsteps. One Tory MP told me any seat with a Labour majority of 8,000 or less was a target. Labour MPs said they were drawing that line at 10,000. Then I was told about the Bunker Project. So great is the potential scale of the meltdown, Labour moderates have identified a select group of MPs whose seats must be defended at all costs. They will receive additional financial resources and extra activists.”

Sebastian Payne, Financial Times, March 17

“The opposition leader has taken his party deep into the realms of unelectability and irrelevance. Some say he is a nice man, trying his best in a difficult job that he never wanted. That would be true if he had stepped aside by now for someone more suited to the role. Even Mr Corbyn must realise how incompetent he is at leading a serious political party.”

Allister Heath, Daily Telegraph, January 6

“Corbyn’s Labour Party faces electoral annihilation. Their poll ratings will deteriorate even further when the public finally starts to pay attention properly in the run-up to the next election. Corbyn would be lucky to get more than 26 per cent of the vote – and the Tories will be back over 40 per cent for the first time since John Major…The truth is that it is no longer possible for any sensible Labour politician to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet while retaining their self-respect.” 

Suzanne Moore, The Guardian, January 11

“This is painful to watch. Labour now dwells in a kind of limbo. Nothing can move forward until he goes, and he will only go in an electoral wipe out…What vainglorious egotism, this willingness to kill a party for the thing he loves. One fundamental of populism is simply that it is popular. He is not.”  

Nick Cohen, The Observer, March 18  

“The Tories have gone easy on Corbyn and his comrades to date for the transparently obvious reason that they want to keep them in charge of Labour. In an election, they would tear them to pieces. They will expose the far left’s record of excusing the imperialism of Vladimir Putin’s gangster state , the oppressors of women and murderers of gays in Iran, the IRA, and every variety of inquisitorial and homicidal Islamist movement, while presenting itself with hypocritical piety as a moral force. Will there be 150, 125, 100 Labour MPs by the end of the flaying? My advice is to think of a number then halve it.”

The death toll of the meanstream media resonates with the chimes of freedom.

 

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The view through the Overton Window: the landscape of politics is fundamentally changed

The election results were a surprise to many, including some of those who support Labour. But Corbyn’s real achievement has been that the political landscape has changed forever. It’s a luxuriant and verdant pasture that defies the laws of neoliberal gravity – it’s a new land without the clutter of elite economic enclosures.

Ever since they won a small majority in 2015, the Conservatives have struggled to pass further austerity measures. They were forced to abandon planned cuts to tax credits and disability benefits. Philip Hammond dropped the proposed increase in National Insurance on the self-employed only a week after the Budget.

Now, Theresa May announces to her ministers that austerity is over. Take a moment to let that sink in. Corbyn’s aim when he put himself forward as Labour leader was originally to shift the debate about our economic organisation, and to challenge the neoliberal orthodoxy.

Austerity is an intrinsic feature of neoliberalism, and has been presented as our only choice of economic organisation, since the Thatcher era. Blair’s continuation, albeit a watered down version, tempered with a handful of social protections to spare us from the worst ravages of unbridled capitalism seemed to consolidate an “end of history” consensus that it was the only viable option. Of course it isn’t and never was. 

Corbyn has succeeded. The consensus is no more. What an extraordinary achievement. His alternative narrative has demolished the right’s defining ideology and their reductive economic model of enclosure. 

Ed Miliband was hated by the Tories, especially because of his manifesto promise of a progressive, tax among other things, and the mainstain media hated him because of his intention to implement the Leveson recommendations. I think we should give him some credit for planting seeds in a ground that wasn’t quite fertile enough back then for the growth of a perenial bipartisan politics to flourish. It has now.  

Theresa May is poised to bring to a close seven years of ideologically driven, painful and pointless austerity after Conservative MPs warned that they would refuse to vote for further cuts. Gavin Barwell, her new advisor, explained that a key reason the Conservative party lost the election is because it “struggled” to convince people that their “quality of life” would improve under the Tories, while Jeremy Corbyn “tapped” into their concerns.

However, as we learned, it takes rather more than “convincing” rhetoric and “tapping into concerns”: it requires a genuinely alternative narrative and policies that demonstrate a commitment to the promises made. Corbyn did all of that.

Barwell has told the prime minister: “We are in danger of being deserted by the millions of working people who have deserted Labour because they don’t feel we are on their side.  

“They feel they [the Tories] are the party of BHS and not the NHS – by BHS I mean the corporate, awful revolting people like that Phillip Green and the dodgy guy he sold it to.”

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The Conservatives have finally realised the inevitable: that their ideologically fueled austerity programme has made them pretty much unelectable by large sections of the population. What they hadn’t expected, though, is that young people would mobilise to participate in democracy and register their disaffection and alienation as a consequence of seven years of Tory-inflicted punishment and loss.

An attempt to re-brand the party because of the election result, however, is unlikely to be successful. The Conservatives have never been particularly accountable and transparent, and the public won’t forget the last 7 years of punitive austerity that the Tories have now revealed to be neither necessary nor “in the public [or economic] interest.” Given that people have died as a consequence of the relentless austerity programme, such political expediency is unlikely to be forgiven.

The Conservative manifesto attack on pensions, the “dementia tax” and proposed winter fuel cuts also demonstrated to everyone that they had no respect for a section of the traditionally more right leaning electorate. If anything should have triggered the recognition that the Conservatives are callous and indifferent to the needs of the electorate, it is their utterly brutal treatment of disabled people for the last few years, leaving many of us suicidal and in utter despair. A moral boundary was crossed with impunity. It was always inevitable that other social groups would be targeted for damaging cuts to their lifeline support sooner or later.

There’s a big difference between having your hand forced to present an image that is simply more palatable to voters and facing difficulties in pushing controversial policy through the legislative process because of a diminished majority, and actually having a genuine motivation to make changes that genuinely benefit the public. Historically, the Conservatives have always been inclined towards authoritarianism, with a view that “there’s no gain without pain”. Their gain, our pain, that is. As for the declaration that austerity has ended, well, I’ll believe it when I see it.

The prime minister spent yesterday apologising to her cabinet and backbenchers, saying that she took full responsibility for losing the party’s Commons majority and running a poor campaign. “I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it,” she told a meeting of the 1922 Committee last night.

With Parliament being hung, the Conservatives don’t have much of a say, and austerity will all but end because they won’t be able to get further cuts through the legislative process with the ease they experienced previously. The DUP, who the Conservatives will depend on for their majority, have long opposed aggressive spending cuts, despite their controversial roots and extreme social conservatism. Their manifesto called for the abolition of the “bedroom tax” and the maintenance of universal pensioner benefits and the state pension “triple lock”.

Sources have said that Theresa May accepted that the electorate’s tolerance of austerity was “at an end” after Boris Johnson, David Davis and a series of Tory MPs told her that she had “misjudged the public mood.” So it is only the prospect of facing electoral annhilation and “minority related difficulties” that has prompted the U-turn on austerity.

However, I wonder when May will apologise to the public for her party’s last 7 years of painful and pointless idologically driven austerity programme? Telling her MPs who lost their seats that they “didn’t deserve it” indicates that she still clings to power for the sake of power – authoritarianism – she clearly doesn’t understand democracy and does not respect the needs and wishes of the public.

Voters strongly signaled that they are tired of excruciating budget cuts brought on by seven years of austerity. May has announced to her Ministers that austerity has ended solely because Jeremy Corbyn presented a viable and resonant alternative narrative for voters.

After accusing Labour of “magic money tree” economics, the Tories are now forced to reluctantly divert their own magic money away from the privileged 1%.

The Labour party’s anti-austerity manifesto helped propel Labour to its highest share of the vote since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 2001.

There has already been some backlash, however. Fraser Nelson was bastard signaling on behalf of the beneficaries of neoliberalism yesterday on radio 4, telling anyone who was listening to his tedious tirade that “we have to balance the books”. He even defended the devastating cuts, controversially claiming that the decision to limit public expenditure has somehow helped the poor. 

He’s part of the grotesque pro-neoliberal parade, they are currently out in force, telling us it’s okay that we have such a grossly unequal society, that people can’t meet their basic living needs and that working people need to use foodbanks, because the wealthy want to pay less tax and take more of our public funds to park offshore. Selfservatism at its most ugly.

This privileged establishment mouthpiece thinks it’s acceptable that disabled people die prematurely and without dignity because of cuts to their lifeline support, that young people can’t afford a place of their own, that students have to take out the equivalent of a small mortgage just to study for a degree and extend their almost non-existent opportunities, that elderly people are faced with policies that stop just short of a government recommended euthanasia programme, just so the bleating, hectoring minority of beneficiaries of neoliberalism like him, with ridiculous affected accents and a culture of entitlement, pay less tax.

Nelson won’t like the fact that the run-up to the election also exposed a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to base emotion, particularly in the painstream media, and has been disconnected from the details of policies on offer. The Conservatives and the press ran campaigns based on telling people who they should and should not vote for, attempting to stage manage our democracy.

Politics was reduced to fear, smearing, lying and gossip-mongering about individuals. All of the media used the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals were ignored. The media have fueled a post-truth approach to politics, which differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of fact by rendering it of “secondary” importance. The electorate responded, and it’s hard lines for those media hard headlines. Farewell to the authoritarian Tory domination of authoritarian festering fake news.

The targeted dark ads campaign, which reflect a longstanding political misuse of psychology and personal data, were also doomed to fail for the very same reasons. People really don’t like to be told what to think and do, after all.

While post-truth has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the Internet.  Over recent years, we have been propelled into a world in which the state changes historic records daily to fit its propaganda aims of the day. But now, the public are starting to see this, and resist the attempts at micro-management of their perceptions and voting behaviours. 

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Corbyn has established himself as a plausible, respectable, authentic and decent potential prime minister, despite the press gang telling us we shouldn’t under any circumstances see him that way. In the end, the likes of the Spectator, the Sun and Daily Mail did him a favour in scraping their evidently bottomless barrel of totalising ruthlessness, hatefulness, outrageous accusations, lies, half truths and misquotes. They went too far in telling people who they should vote for. Authoritarianism doesn’t work once people see it for what it is.

The Tories have tripped themselves up and lie winded and chaotically sprawling for all to see. They have lost their step on the road to hard Brexit, and lost their momentum. They won’t be able to implement their manifesto, and will struggle desperately to get any new austerity measures through parliament. Even the DUP won’t support more cuts.

But none of this will undo the damage already done.

In contrast to the Conservatives, Labour costed their detailed manifesto meticulously, though it needs a little more work to ensure that the Institute of Fiscal Responsibility (IFS) see it as fully viable. However, the IFS have endorsed it overall, so far.

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Barry Gardiner, shadow trade secretary, today spelled out a good Labour line for “achieving the benefits” of the single market: putting jobs and the economy first allows Labour to savage every authoritarian Brexit move that makes people poorer.

Quite properly so. Meanwhile, Labour can now get on with preparing for government.

An old spiritual that sounds so fresh in a new political context of hope.


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Noam Chomsky endorses Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s why

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Professor Noam Chomsky has urged the British electorate to vote for Labour. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, earlier this month, Chomsky stated: “If I were a voter in Britain, I would vote for him.”

The linguist, cognitive academic and philosophical anarchist endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, and observes that the Labour Party would be doing far better in opinion polls if it were not for the “bitter” hostility of the mainstream media.

As Chomsky is world renowned for being a major critic of neoliberalism, it comes as no surprise that he supports a candidate who would reverse the radical socioeconomic reforms that Britain has gone through since the Thatcher era.

He said there were a lot of factors involved, but insisted that Labour would not be trailing the Conservatives so heavily in the polls if the media was more open to Corbyn’s agenda.  He said: “If he had a fair treatment from the media – that would make a big difference.” 

Asked what motivation he thought newspapers had to oppose Corbyn, Chomsky said the Labour leader had, like Bernie Sanders in the US, broken out of the “elite, liberal consensus” that he claimed was “pretty conservative”.

It’s potentially a fresh and hopeful view from the Overton window, if only we would open the curtains.

The academic, who was in Britain to deliver a lecture at the University of Reading on what he believes is the deteriorating state of western democracy, says that voters had turned to the Conservatives in recent years because of “an absence of anything else”.

He said: “The shift in the Labour party under [Tony] Blair made it a pale image of the Conservatives which, given the nature of the policies and their very visible results, had very little appeal for good reasons.”

He added that Labour had needed to “reconstruct itself” in the interests of working people, with concerns about human and civil rights at its core, arguing that such a programme could appeal to the majority of people. As a human rights activist, I have to agree.

Chomsky said that the future must lie with the left of the party. “The constituency of the Labour party, the new participants, the Momentum group and so on … if there is to be a serious future for the Labour party that is where it is in my opinion,” he said.

The comments came as Chomsky prepared to deliver a university lecture entitled Racing for the precipice: is the human experiment doomed?

He told the Guardian that he believed people had created a “perfect storm” in which the key defence against the existential threats of climate change and the nuclear age were being radically weakened.

“Each of those is a major threat to survival, a threat that the human species has never faced before, and the third element of this pincer is that the socio-economic programmes, particularly in the last generation, but the political culture generally has undermined the one potential defence against these threats,” he said.

Chomsky described the defence as a “functioning democratic society with engaged, informed citizens deliberating and reaching measures to deal with and overcome the threats”. 

He said that neoliberal policies are the reason for the breakdown in democracy, they had transferred power from public institutions to markets and deregulated financial institutions while failing to benefit ordinary people. 

It’s certainly true that neoliberalism is incompatible with democracy and human rights frameworks.

He said: “In 2007 right before the great crash, when there was euphoria about what was called the ‘great moderation’, the wonderful economy, at that point the real wages of working people were lower – literally lower – than they had been in 1979 when the neoliberal programmes began. You had a similar phenomenon in England.”

Chomsky said that the disillusionment that followed gave rise to the surge of anti-establishment movements – including Donald Trump and Brexit, but also Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France and the rise of Corbyn and Sanders. 

He said: The Sanders achievement was maybe the most surprising and significant aspect of the November election. Sanders broke from a century of history of pretty much bought elections. That is a reflection of the decline of how political institutions are perceived.”

But he said the positions that the US senator, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, had taken would not have surprised Dwight Eisenhower, who was US president in the 1950s.

“[Eisenhower] said no one belongs in a political system who questions the right of workers to organise freely, to form powerful unions. Sanders called it a political revolution but it was to a large extent an effort to return to the new deal policies that were the basis for the great growth period of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Chomsky believes that Corbyn stands in the same tradition.

The media is the massage

Chomsky has written extensively about the role of the free market media in reinforcing dominant ideology and maintaining the unequal distribution and balance of power. 

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman explore the pro-establishment media’s role in establishing the apparence of a political and economic orthodoxy (neoliberalism) and extending a seemingly normative compliance with state policies, while also marginalising antithetical or alternative perspectives, dismissing them as heresy. In the US and UK, most left wing commentors have a very diminished media platform from which to present their perspectives and policy proposals.

This “free-market” version of censorship is more subtle and difficult to identify, challenge and undermine than the equivalent propaganda system which was present in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. 

As Chomsky argues, the mainstream press is corporate owned and so reflects corporate priorities and interests. While acknowledging that some journalists are dedicated and well-intentioned, he says that the choice of topics and issues featured in the mass media, the unquestioned premises on which that “coverage” rests, and the range of opinions that are expressed are all constrained to reinforce the state’s dominant ideology.

Last year, research by YouGov found that the British media is the most right wing in Europe. Readers also ranked the British press as the most biased in all of the seven countries surveyed.

Noam Chomsky: I would vote for Jeremy Corbyn (extended interview) – BBC Newsnight

Noam Chomsky’s 8-Point Rationale for Voting for the “Lesser Evil” Candidate

Although this was written about the American political system, it applies equally well to the UK one.

Chomsky says: “Critics of “lesser evil voting” (LEV) should consider that their footing on the high ground may not be as secure as they often take for granted. 

Generally associated with the religious left, secular leftists implicitly invoke it when they reject LEV on the grounds that “a lesser of two evils is still evil.” Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that this is exactly the point of lesser evil voting – i.e. to do less evil, what needs to be challenged is the assumption that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences. 

The basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.

Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that this is exactly the point of lesser evil voting-i.e. to do less evil, what needs to be challenged is the assumption that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences, specifically those outlined in 4). The basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.

While some would suggest extending the critique by noting that the politics of moral witness can become indistinguishable from narcissistic self-agrandizement, this is substantially more harsh than what was intended and harsher than what is merited. That said, those reflexively denouncing advocates of LEV on a supposed “moral” basis should consider that their footing on the high ground may not be as secure as they often take for granted to be the case.

A third criticism of LEV equates it with a passive acquiescence to the bipartisan status quo under the guise of pragmatism, usually deriving from those who have lost the appetite for radical change. It is surely the case that some of those endorsing LEV are doing so in bad faith-cynical functionaries whose objective is to promote capitulation to a system which they are invested in protecting. Others supporting LEV, however, can hardly be reasonably accused of having made their peace with the establishment.

Their concern, as alluded to in 6) and 7) inheres in the awareness that frivolous and poorly considered electoral decisions impose a cost, their memories extending to the ultra-left faction of the peace movement having minimized the comparative dangers of the Nixon presidency during the 1968 elections. The result was six years of senseless death and destruction in Southeast Asia and also a predictable fracture of the left setting it up for its ultimate collapse during the backlash decades to follow.

The broader lesson to be drawn is not to shy away from confronting the dominance of the political system under the management of the two major parties. Rather, challenges to it need to be issued with a full awareness of their possible consequences.

This includes the recognition that far right victories not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the “reasonable” alternative. A Trump presidency, should it materialize, will undermine the burgeoning movement centered around the Sanders campaign, particularly if it is perceived as having minimized the dangers posed by the far right.

A more general conclusion to be derived from this recognition is that this sort of cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing.

Finally, it should be understood that the reigning doctrinal system recognizes the role presidential elections perform in diverting the left from actions which have the potential to be effective in advancing its agenda. These include developing organizations committed to extra-political means, most notably street protest, but also competing for office in potentially winnable races. The left should devote the minimum of time necessary to exercise the LEV choice then immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle.

*****

1) Voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement directed in retaliation towards major party candidates who fail to reflect our values, or of a corrupt system designed to limit choices to those acceptable to corporate elites.

2) The exclusive consequence of the act of voting in 2016 will be (if in a contested “swing state”) to marginally increase or decrease the chance of one of the major party candidates winning.

3) One of these candidates, Trump, denies the existence of global warming, calls for increasing use of fossil fuels, dismantling of environmental regulations and refuses assistance to India and other developing nations as called for in the Paris agreement, the combination of which could, in four years, take us to a catastrophic tipping point. Trump has also pledged to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants, offered to provide for the defense of supporters who have assaulted African American protestors at his rallies, stated his “openness to using nuclear weapons”, supports a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and regards “the police in this country as absolutely mistreated and misunderstood” while having “done an unbelievable job of keeping law and order.” Trump has also pledged to increase military spending while cutting taxes on the rich, hence shredding what remains of the social welfare “safety net” despite pretenses.

4) The suffering which these and other similarly extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalized and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency.

5) 4) should constitute sufficient basis to voting for Clinton where a vote is potentially consequential-namely, in a contested, “swing” state.

6) However, the left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.

7) Often this charge will emanate from establishment operatives who will use it as a bad faith justification for defeating challenges to corporate hegemony either in the Democratic Party or outside of it. They will ensure that it will be widely circulated in mainstream media channels with the result that many of those who would otherwise be sympathetic to a left challenge will find it a convincing reason to maintain their ties with the political establishment rather than breaking with it, as they must.

8) Conclusion: by dismissing a “lesser evil” electoral logic and thereby increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat the left will undermine what should be at the core of what it claims to be attempting to achieve.”

 
 —
 

Noam Chomsky is institute professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books are Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, 2016) and Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Seven Stories Press, 2017). His website is www.chomsky.info.

“Gig economy” companies exploit workers and are free-riding on the welfare state

Image result for gig economy uk

Deliveroo couriers plan legal action against the food delivery firm to claim better employment rights including the minimum wage, sick pay and holiday.

The 20 delivery riders say they are employees and not, as the company argues, self-employed contractors. In the latest challenge to employment conditions in the gig economy, they are seeking compensation for not receiving holiday pay and for being paid wages below the legal minimum for employees.

The Deliveroo worker’s move follows successful employment tribunal cases brought by cycle couriers at CitySprint, Excel and drivers for taxi app Uber. All three cases found the riders were workers, meaning they are entitled to basic employment rights including holiday pay and the minimum wage, rather than self-employed contractors with no employment rights. 

Uber claimed that its 40,000 drivers in the UK are self-employed, and therefore not entitled to pensions, holiday pay, or other basic employment rights. An employment tribunal in London disagreed, calling Uber’s argument that it was simply a technology company “ridiculous”, and they were relying on “fictions and twisted arguments.”

HMRC is investigating delivery giant Hermes for paying workers less than the minimum wage. Staff receive no holiday or sick pay, and risk losing work if they can’t make their rounds due to illness or lack of childcare.

Some 78 couriers working for Hermes, a company that describes itself as “the UK’s largest nationwide network of self employed couriers”, have subsequently made complaints to Frank Field, the chairman of the House of Commons work and pensions select committee.

It is estimated that falsely classifying workers as self-employed is costing the UK up to £314m per year in lost tax and national insurance contributions. 

A recent study has found that the average self-employed contractor is now paid less than in 1995

The Resolution Foundation – a think tank that aims to improve pay for families – partly has blamed the changing nature of the self-employed workforce. Their report says: “With the introduction and growth of the [so-called] New Living Wage, by 2020 more than 1 in 7 are expected to be paid at or only just above the legal minimum. This increases the need for employers and government to provide personal progression opportunities to get people beyond the wage floor.”

Currently, the government expects individuals to make in-work progression without support, or face financial penalties (sanctions) to their top up Universal Credit. This draconian approach forces unreasonable responsibility onto individuals and their familes, because the problem of low pay is one of exploitative employers and government policy rather than of individual behaviour.

Employers are responsible for setting pay levels and terms. The problem is more broadly one of the key features of neoliberalism, which has led to increasing employment precarity, characterised by insecure, exploitative forms of work. Meanwhile, the organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are being portrayed as “market distortions” by a government (and a party) that has legislated mercilessly to undermine the basic rights and fair levels of pay for employees.

The Labour party have pledged to reverse the Conservative’s anti-union laws if they are elected June.

The political logrolling of the profit incentive presents us with the most unedifying and hard face of neoliberalism, in which human need is profoundly devalued; the employee is merely availed of as an object of value extraction. The Conservatives certainly don’t value the idea of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”, despite all their rhetoric about “making work pay”. Over the past six years, we learned that this slogan was only a semantic decoy: a cover for the dismantling of our welfare state by a creeping, unremitting stealth.

The report went on to say that many more people had taken up lower-paid jobs in the so-called “gig economy, essentially self-employed workers taking on a variety of different roles, while the proportion of self-employed business owners with their own staff had fallen. The number of hours worked by the self-employed had also declined.

The foundation said this had limited wage growth before the financial crash, but that pay had been “squeezed” in real terms more recently, falling £100 a week by 2013-14.

Last year, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Britain’s new generation of self-employed workers are not all the budding entrepreneurs ministers like to talk about.

“While some choose self-employment, many are forced into it because there is no alternative work. Self-employment today too often means low pay and fewer rights at work.”

The Resolution Foundation’s most recent briefing looks at the final quarter of labour market data for 2016. It says: “Most importantly, inflation has risen rapidly in recent months, weighing heavily on real pay growth – though published pay statistics will take some time to fully reflect this. Well over a third of the workforce are experiencing shrinking pay packets according to the latest figures, in sectors ranging from accommodation to finance and the public sector. Many more will join them in the coming months as inflation continues to rise, with pay across the economy as a whole set to have fallen in the first three months of 2017.

Indeed, our ‘Spotlight’ article notes that real pay in the public sector has likely now begun a fall that could well last for several years. Conversely, private sector pay growth will continue to outpace the headline average earnings figures.”

A Department for Business spokesperson said the government was “committed to building an economy that works for everyone”.

Last year, Damian Green said, in a speech at the Resolution Foundation, that the private sector and voluntary sector “should be more involved in the provision of welfare services”. Green’s endorsement of the “exciting” gig economy and the “huge potential” that it offered came just the month after an employment tribunal found that drivers for the Uber car service should in fact get the minimum wage and paid holiday. 

Green also said: “The Government is a necessary, but not sufficient provider of welfare.” 

Shadow Digital Economy minister Louise Haigh tabled an amendment to the Government’s Digital Economy Bill, New Clause 24, following the tribunal ruling against Uber. 

She said there was still a danger that despite the ruling, Silicon Valley multinationals and other employers could use “loopholes” to break the rules and get around workers’ protections. 

Haigh said: “This is a landmark ruling for workers in the digital economy, and a great victory for the GMB and its members.

“The digital economy was supposed to promise choice and flexibility, but the reality for too many in the sector is that they are overworked, underpaid and exploited by bosses they never meet and who do not even fulfil their basic duties as an employer.

The Work and Pensions Committee report

In a new report the Work and Pensions Committee also concluded that the government must close the loopholes that are currently allowing “bogus” self-employment practices, which are potentially creating an extra burden on the welfare state while simultaneously reducing the tax contributions that sustain it. Increasingly, some companies are using self-employed workforces as cheap labour, excusing themselves from both responsibilities towards their workers and from substantial National Insurance liabilities, pension auto-enrolment responsibilities and the Apprenticeship Levy. 

In an inquiry that has had to be curtailed because of the election, the Committee heard from “gig economy” companies like Uber, Amazon, Hermes and Deliveroo, and from drivers who work with them. The evidence taken painted starkly contrasting pictures of the effect and impact of “self-employment” by these companies.

Companies utlilising self-employed workforces frequently promote the idea that flexible employment is contingent on self-employed status, but the Committee says this is a fiction.

The report

The Committee says:

  • The apparent freedom companies enjoy to deny workers the rights that come with “employee” or “worker” status fails to protect workers from exploitation and poor working conditions. It also leads to substantial tax losses to the public purse, and potentially places increased strain on the welfare state.
  • Designating workers as self-employed because their contract offers none of the benefits of employment puts the cart before horse. It is clear, though, that this logic has taken hold, enabling companies to propagate a myth of self-employment. This myth frequently fails to stand up in court, but individuals face huge risks in challenging their employment status that way.
  • Where there are tax advantages to both workers and businesses in opting for a self-employed contractor arrangement, there is little to stand in the way.
  • An assumption of the employment status of “worker” by default, rather than “self-employed” by default, would protect both those workers and the public purse. It would put the onus on companies to provide basic safety net standards of rights and benefits to their workers, and make the requisite contributions to the social safety net. Companies wishing to deviate from this model would need to present the case for doing so, shifting the burden of proof of employment status onto the better resourced company. 
  • Self-employed people and employees receive almost equal access to all of the services funded by National Insurance, especially with the introduction of the new state Pension, yet the self-employed contribute far less. The incoming government should set out a roadmap for equalising employee and self-employed National Insurance Contributions.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) needs to ensure that its programmes and resources reflect the positive contribution that self-employment can make to society and the economy. This may require an expansion of specialist support in JobCentre Plus.
  • The DWP is seeking to support entrepreneurship without subsidising unprofitable self-employment. The existing Minimum Income Floor (MIF) in Universal Credit (UC) does not get this balance right and risks stifling viable new businesses. The incoming Government should urgently review the MIF with a view to improving its sensitivity to the realities of self-employment. Until this is complete, the MIF should not apply to self-employed UC claimants.

Chair’s comments

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said;

“Companies in the gig economy are free-riding on the welfare state, avoiding all their responsibilities to profit from this bogus “self-employed” designation while ordinary tax-payers pick up the tab. This inquiry has convinced me of the need to offer “worker” status to the drivers who work with those companies as the default option. This status would be a much fairer reflection of the work they undertake which seems to fall between what most of us would think of as “self-employed” or “employed”. 

It would also protect them from some of the appalling practices that have been reported to the Committee in this inquiry. Uber’s recent announcement that it will soon charge its drivers for sickness cover is just another way of pushing costs onto the workforce, to reinforce the impression that those workers are self-employed.

Self-employment can be genuinely flexible and rewarding for many, but “workers” and “employees” can and do work flexibly. Flexibility is not the preserve of poorly paid, unstable contractors, nor does the brand of “flexibility” on offer from these gig economy companies seem reciprocal. It is clearly profit and profit only that is the motive for designating workers as self-employed. The companies get all the benefits, while workers take on all the risks and the state will be expected to pick up the tab, with little contribution from the companies involved.

It is up to Government to close the loopholes that are currently being exploited by these companies, as part of a necessary and wide ranging reform to the regulation of corporate behaviour.”

Uber


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Political polls, think tanks and propaganda: the antidemocratic writing on the wall

Image result for propaganda UK Tories bitter future

The Mail on Sunday columnist, christian and Burkean Conservative, Peter Hitchens, has said:

“Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.”

I don’t agree with Hitchens on very much, but he is right about this.

In his book The Broken Compass, Hitchens informs us that opinion polls are actually a device for influencing public opinion. He says that the establishment and the media are responsible for this manipulation, based on the misuse of statistics. The overall purpose is to “bring about the thing it claims is already happening”. 

The author cites contemporary examples of the media attacking Gordon Brown and the “predicted” win of the Conservative Party at the 2010 general election, although Hitchens also described Brown, as a “dismal Marxoid. Hitchens’ comments are based on his time as a reporter at Westminster. He says that political journalists are uninterested in serious political debate, and describes how a media reporting bias is attempting to facilitate a Tory general election win.

Remarkably, as a social Conservative, Hitchens states one of his motivations for writing the book was to frustrate this exercise.

Of course government influence isn’t the only problem. Neoliberal bias and “market forces” that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers. In short, we cannot escape the cultural saturation of pro-establishment views, and the establishment is of course both neoliberal and Conservative. 

Predicting elections may seem interesting, fun, and perhaps even educational from an academic perspective, but it doesn’t add much to our democratic practices. Polls give an apparency of “data-driven journalism” but it produces a reductive “horse-race” narrative, in which political and policy context is mostly ignored with the numbers, accurate or not, pretty much being framed as all that matters. This trivialises our democracy and obscures the importance of critical thinking and informed choices regarding policies in influencing the public’s voting decisions. 

Roger Pielke Jr, professor of Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, says: Rather than trying to see the future, political science might serve us better by helping citizens to create that future by clarifying the choices we face and their possible consequences for policy.” In treating politics like a sporting event, we diminish the partisanship, the choices, and the fundamental values that lie at the core of politics. I fear that data journalists have diminished our politics.” 

When political opinion polls and the media appear to support one political party over another, there can be little doubt that this will have an influence on the psychology of voters, because it’s akin to declaring election winners before the election is actually held. It works rather like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the UK, the media is biased and leans heavily towards the right. Despite the fact that the Labour party currently has the highest party membership in western Europe, yet the leader is viciously attacked, and very often in a particularly nasty, personal way. The systematic way in which the media are actively attempting to delegitimise Corbyn is unworthy of a so-called democracy.

party membership

Some countries, such as France, Brazil and South Korea, impose a halt on election polling because of the bandwagon effect, which may skew the democratic process. The bandwagon effect describes a process of voters favoring a party that is doing well in the polls, while the underdog effect predicts that support will go to a party trailing in the polls.

There is also the possibility of a projection effect, with voters’ expectations conforming to their partisanship. There is rather less empirical evidence for the existence of underdog effect than there is for the existence of the bandwagon effect, which is based on individuals rallying to the perceived majority opinion, because of a fairly widespread psychological need for feeling we are part of a social ingroup, and a general tendency towards normative compliancce and social conformity.

We know that political opinion polls are certainly not always an accurate reflection of public opinion. Samples of the population selected to participate may be biased. For example, asking Daily Mail readers who they will vote for will almost certainly produce a majority right wing set of responses. However, if you ask the same question on Twitter, you are much more likely to get a Labour majority.  

The polls do have an effect on voter intentions and on those trying to influence the outcome of elections.

poll correct

itv tm

Poll by ITV’s This Morning asked viewers which party leader they would prefer to see as Prime Minister.

More generally, in sociology and other social sciences, bias is defined as any tendency which prevents unprejudiced consideration of a research question. Bias can occur at any phase of research, including study design, or sampling and data collection, as well as in the process of data analysis and publication.  

It is widely recognised that quantitative social research methods, such as surveys, may be susceptible to reduced reliability and research bias, sometimes entailing a process where the researchers performing the survey influence the results by selecting a specific kind of sample of the population, for example.

Human nature is complex and can not be reduced easily to just a simple either/or response. Bias may arise when researchers inadvertently or deliberately select subjects that are more likely to generate the desired results. Either way, this is a reversal of the normal processes governing science.

Additionally, there is also a risk of response bias – a general term for a wide range of cognitive biases that influence the responses of participants away from accuracy or truthfulness. These biases are most prevalent in the types of studies and research that involve participant self-report, in quantitative research such as surveys. Response biases can have a large impact on the validity of questionnaires, surveys and polls.

With all of this in mind, we need to think about how the conventional political polls are run, who runs them, who funds them and for what and whose purpose.

In the UK, some of the major polls are run by:

  • Survation, pollster to The Mail on Sunday, Daily Mirror, Daily Record and Sky News. They say: “Survation also have an active strategy and campaign advisory business helping clients better understand customers & members, appreciate & help shape public opinion. We help our clients improve customer engagement and effectiveness of campaigns – be they charitable, political or commercial.” 
  • ComRes, retained pollster for the BBC and The Independent. It says on their site: ComRes provides specialist research and insight to support reputation management, public policy and communications. For more than a decade we have used the latest developments in market and opinion research to inform strategies, change behaviours and define debates.”
  • Ipsos MORI (formerly MORI). Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute works extensively for the Government of the United Kingdom, looking at public attitudes to key public services, and so informing social policy. Issues such as identity, social cohesion,loyalty, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research.
  • YouGov. – Stephan Shakespeare, the firm’s founder and CEO from 2010, once stood as a Conservative candidate for Colchester; he was also a Conservative Party pollster. The other founder, and CEO until 2010, is Nadhim Zahawi a British Conservative Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010.
  • ICM. They say Understanding choice means you know how your audience feels, thinks and behaves. And how you can change that. We help influence choice in three areas. How do you energise your brand and communications? How do you improve your customers’ experience of you? How do you understand and influence citizens?  
  • Populus, official The Times pollster. They say: “Our Reputation & Strategy team works with the boards of global companies and public institutions to help them understand, influence, and improve their reputations. We are specialists in reputation. We understand why it matters, how to measure it, what drives it, who influences it, how to align it with existing activity, and what you should do to improve it.”
  • TNS-BMRBTNS changed their name to Kantar Public UK: a leading agency providing research and consultancy to UK policymakers. The company is structured around specific areas of marketing expertise: Brand & Communication; Innovation & Product Development; Retail & Shopper; Customer Experience; Employee Engagement; Qualitative; Automotive; and Political & Social.

All of these companies operate within a taken-for-granted neoliberal context, supporting various actors within the “global market place” paradigm, including governments, and therefore have a distinct ideological leaning and very clearly defined economic interests in maintaining the status quo. 

Nudging voting decisions

It’s likely that Lynton Crosby’s international notoriety made him the subject of considerable press attention during the Conservative’s election campaign. However, there was another man also behind the Conservative campaign who was probably even more cunning. American strategist Jim Messina was hired as a strategy adviser in August 2013. Senior Conservative staff had been impressed by Barack Obama’s easy victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, crediting a relentless focus on data collection to Messina.

Access to this level of personal data was crucial to the success of the Conservative campaign: it determined which voters the party needed to target, contact and which type of message they would present. This process began with direct mail – personally addressed to voters in each target seat, who were divided into 40 different categories, with a slightly different tailored message for each one.

A telephone research company called Return Marketing (now known as Return Research) canvassed thousands of voters in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The calls they made rather tellingly targeted voters in specific, marginal constituencies.

Last year, the The Canary found evidence that the Conservatives may have broken a law that prohibits paying canvassers to support a specific candidate’s election. Whistleblowers speaking to an independent journalist have alleged that they were told to push poll voters (sway voters towards voting for the Conservatives by using loaded questions.)

Channel Four’s secret filming of the company Return Market’s “push polling”- polling designed to influence voters while masquerading as political research – during the EU referendum.

Pollsters, by and large, reject the charge that they herd public opinion, but social psychologists and behavioural economists inform us that there is more than a little truth in the bandwaggon effect theory.

Pollsters say they are careful to avoid influencing the outcome of a poll through priming and order effects in the survey design, but there are many other stumbling blocks to bear in mind. Social psychologists and the new behavioural economists say that in general people want to follow the crowd and do not like to challenge the normative order (which as a concept is in itself a very functionalist and conservative framing of society).

This is reflected in the nudge theorists’ use of social norming strategies, currently being adopted in public policies, which politically target some social groups to change their perceptions and behaviours. Social norming is based on an assumption of pluralistic ignorance bychoice architects. Ultimately, the “choice architects” are the government, who, after all, are responsible for public policies which utilise experimental behavioural theory.

It’s of major concern that attempts by a government to surreptitiously change the perceptions, behaviours, emotions and decision-making of a population using experimental behavioural economic theory and discriminatory policies is not currently subject to public scrutiny and ethical standards. There is nothing standing in the way of “choice architects” using social norming to generate, manipulate or exploit pluralistic ignorance in order to simply maintain and justify the status quo.

So if we see an opinion poll telling us what the majority thinks, believe or is doing, because many have an inbuilt psychological bias towards following the crowd, we need to question potential motives underpinning that “information”.

The government know about the bandwaggon bias and are designing communications strategies and policies which play to this heuristic.

Think tanks, the media and the Conservative influence on public thinking

In the late 1960s and 1970s, movement conservatives persuaded wealthy individuals and businesses to establish a conservative intellectual and political infrastructure. This includes think tanks that resemble academic institutions but publish studies supporting Conservative and libertarian arguments. The American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943, but was expanded dramatically with new funding in 1971. The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973 and the Cato Institute was founded in 1974.

In Britain, Tim Montgomerie, has described the Conservative movement as “the infrastructure outside of the party that supports small ‘c’ conservative values.”

A March 2009 presentation by Montgomerie and Matthew Elliott listed a number of organisations as part of the British Conservative movement: 

Institute of Economic Affairs | Centre for Policy Studies | Reform | Adam Smith Institute | Policy Exchange | Centre for Social Justice | Civitas | International Policy Network | Taxpayers’ Alliance | ConservativeHome | New Culture Forum | Standpoint | Migration Watch UK | Countryside Alliance | Centre for Social Cohesion

Elliott compared this with the smaller size of the movement in 1997. According to Montgomerie, the comparison was intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive. An up to date, comprehensive powerbase list might include: 

2020 Health | Atlantic Bridge | Adam Smith Institute | Better Off Out | Big Brother Watch | Bow Group | Bruges Group | Campaign for an English Parliament | Campaign for the Protection for Rural England | Centre for Policy Studies | Centre for Social Cohesion | Centre for Social Justice | Christian Conservative Fellowship | Civitas | Conservative Education Society | ConservativeHome | Conservative Intelligence | Conservative Party | Conservative Philosophy Group | Countryside Alliance | Democracy Institute | Direct Democracy | Drivers Alliance | Doctors for Reform | Economic Policy Centre | Enterprise Forum | European Foundation | European Policy Forum | Family Education Trust | First Defence | Forest | Freedom Alliance | Freedom Association | Freedom Zone | The Free Society | Global Vision | Global Warming Policy Foundation | Henry Jackson Society | Institute of Ideas | Institute of Directors | Institute of Economic Affairs | International Policy Network | Legatum Institute | Liberty League | Localis | Message Space | Migration Watch | New Culture Forum | Nothing British about the BNP | Nurses for Reform | Open Europe | Policy Exchange | Politeia | Progressive Vision | Reform | Reform Scotland | ResPublica | Safe Speed | Save Our Pubs and Clubs | Selsdon Group | Social Affairs Unit | Social Market Foundation | Spiked | Standpoint | Student Rights | Sunlight COPS | Taxpayers Alliance | TEA Party UK | UK National Defence AssociationYoung Britons Foundationamong others. 

The problem is that think tanks synthesise, create and communicate “information” and give “advice” to the public and policy-makers, very often through the media. Think tanks tend to be far more media savvy than academics, often with staff who have backgrounds in the communication industry – media, PR or lobbying organisations.

This means that policy proposals, media narratives and public debate are much more likely to reflect Conservative ideology and favor pro-establishment outcomes, rather than being non-partisan, evidence-based and crucially, a representation of public needs. This of course turns democracy completely on its head. 

As Professor Judy Sebba points out in Getting research into policy: the role of think tanks and other mediators: “Far from educating the public about evidence, think tanks are characterised by closedness and exclusivity. They do not subject their work to review by others and so the quality of their outputs are not assessed. Most worryingly, the media present the work of think tanks as credible sources of research and facts without any checks being in place.”  

As key players in “democratic” politics and in shaping public opinion, think tanks have a responsibility to be transparent about their operations, but seldom are. A good question to ask is who funds them and what is their agenda?

The bandwaggon propaganda technique is also used as a key campaign strategy

More recently, I explored the role of intentionally deceitful political language and rhetoric in another article  which highlights the role that the media play in shaping our public life. Media manipulation involves a series of related techniques in which partisans create images or arguments that favour their own particular interests. Such tactics may include the use of logical fallacies, psychological manipulations, deception, linguistic, rhetorical and propaganda techniques, and often involve the suppression of information or alternative perspectives by simply crowding them out. 

Discrediting and minimisation are often used in persuading other people or social groups to stop listening to certain perspectives and arguments, or by simply diverting public attention elsewhere. An example of diversion is the recent widespread scapegoating of refugees and people who need social security, such as disabled people or those who have lost their jobs, in a bid to maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism and its values at a time when its failings were brought into sharp focus during and following the global crisis – also exposing failings in the behaviours and practices of the government and the vulture capitalist financier class.

Neoliberalism always gravitates towards increasing inequality, extending and deepening poverty. Fear mongering is sometimes used with a diversion or misdirection propaganda technique to mask this, and may be pervasive. Sometimes politicians and media commentators suddenly take a debate in a weird and irrational but predictable direction to avoid democratic accountability.

During the coalition and Conservative governments, the tabloids have chosen and framed most of the debates that have dominated domestic politics in the UK, ensuring that immigration, welfare, law and order, the role of the state, and Britain’s relationship with Europe have all been discussed in increasingly right wing terms, while almost ironically, the government have colonised progressive rhetoric to cover their intentions. It also serves to further discredit the narrative of the left.

However, there is therefore a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intentions and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality. 

The Conservatives commonly use a nudge technique called “social norming” – a Behavioural Insights Team variant of the bandwaggon propaganda technique – particularly for General Election campaigning. It’s about manipulating a false sense of consensus, and normalising Conservative ideology. It’s also about prompting behavioural change, and as such, this method is a blatant attempt to influence the voting behaviours of the public, by suggesting that many others have already “joined” the Conservative “cause” and are happier or better off for doing so. The technique uses societal pressures to play on several basic emotional elements of human nature.

Oh, and then there is the basic technique of telling lies, of course.

Image result for george osborne big labour boy did it kittysjones

And using euphemism:


Image result for Tory lies

Social norming is an appeal to emotional needs to fit in and belong, and also, to be on the side that wins. As stated earlier, it has a kind of self fulfilling prophecy element to it, too. It’s used in advertising – words like “everyone”, “we”, “our” and “most people” or “many” are used a lot to sell brands and imply a popularity of certain products that usually isn’t real.

Political slogans like the almost farcical “country that works for everyone” and the previous “all in it together” are examples of poor attempts at social norming. It’s aimed at shifting our normative framework to accommodate the status quo, too, regardless of how the accounts don’t tally with reality. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

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It’s worth noting that “We are all in it together” was a slogan made famous in Terry Guiliams’s dystopic black comedy Brazil. Cameron certainly had a moment of recycling propaganda with grim irony there.

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Propaganda techniques commonly used by the Conservatives

As mentioned previously, bandwagon and “inevitable-victory” appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking.” Inevitable victory invites those not already on the bandwagon to join those already convinced they are on the road to certain victory. Those already or at least partially on the bandwagon are reassured that staying aboard is their best course of action.  

Join the crowd is a technique that reinforces people’s natural desire to be on the winning side. This technique is used to convince the audience that a programme is an expression of an irresistible mass movement and that it is in their best interest to join. As an example, see Grant Shapps under fire over website ‘sham’ which used models featured on Australian university site to make Tory activists look ‘youthful and in touch’ with Britain. Also see Behaviourism.

Common man – The ordinary folks or Common Man technique is an attempt to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms (and clothe their message in face-to-face and audiovisual communications) in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person, and to naturalise it.

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Ad hominem is a Latin phrase which has come to mean personally attacking your opponent, as opposed to challenging their propositions and arguments. A recent example is Boris Johnson’s strange attack on Jeremy Corbyn, calling him a “benign herbivore” but at the same time, also a “mutton-headed old mugwump.

The word comes from Massachusett, an Algonquian language spoken by the Massachusett people, from whom the US state takes its name. The word mugquomp, meaning “war leader” or “great chief”, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for an officer, captain, and duke.

Sadly, Johnson, languishing in his own in solipsism, has clearly invented his own personal meaning, though he really should pay heed to Wittgenstein, who warned of the dangers of private language (the idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent.) Then he wouldn’t sound like such a mutton-headed numpty. Johnson, like many Conservatives, has problems reconciling his “inner” (subjective) experience with the “outside” (objective) world.

By the early 1800s the form “mugwump” had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss. J K Rowling was probably thinking of the earlier meaning when she used the word for the head of the International Confederation of Wizards in Harry Potter, the Supreme Mugwump.

Ad nauseam – This approach uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach works best when media sources are limited and controlled by the propagator. Joseph Goebbels, not known to be driven by the passionate inspiration of the moment, but by the result of sober psychological calculation, was particularly talented in utilising this approach. Iain Duncan Smith has previously shown a similar penchant for repeated mendacity. Then there is Theresa May’s ad nauseum slogans: ” A strong and stable leadership in the national interest,” and “A country that works for everyone.”

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   Image courtesy of News Thump

Which brings us to the Glittering Generalities technique. This another category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.

This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.

Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.”  An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse, whilst sounding vaguely rightous, because someone nicked England, or hid it on another planet.

Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.

Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)

Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.

As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.

Here is a bit of refreshing straight talk for a change:

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I’m not above a bit of sloganeering myself. In 2015, I came up with “Tory cuts cost lives”, which my friend, Robert Livingstone, turned into a couple of memes.

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This one recent one went very viral very quickly, glad to see it so widely used:

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Finally, I thought I would share that the widely used word “selfservative” came from a disillusioned Tory I knew called Derek. I used it a lot on social media, and my friend, Robert Livingstone, popularised it in his memes. Derek defected to Labour and vanished from the Conservative Facebook groups where Robert and I used to have surprisingly civilised debate with him. 

I will be writing more about electioneering, exposing propaganda and other techniques of persuasion, over the next couple of weeks.

Related

Propaganda Techniques (Summary)

The Conservative’s negative campaign strategy: “share the lies and win a prize”

Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms

The erosion of democracy and the repression of mainstream media in the UK

Department for Work and Pensions officials admit to using fake claimant’s comments to justify benefit sanctions – a very basic propaganda technique called “telling lies”

Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state:

“In a white paper authored by Facebook’s security team and published on Thursday, the company detailed well-funded and subtle techniques used by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals. These efforts go well beyond “fake news”, the company said, and include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts that are used to amplify one particular view, sow distrust in political institutions and spread confusion.

“We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” said the company.

“In general, Facebook said it faced a new challenge in tackling “subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.

“Facebook described much of the activity as “false amplification” – which included the mass creation of fake accounts; the coordinated sharing of content and engagement with that content (such as likes); and the distribution of “inflammatory and sometimes racist memes”.  – BBC

In its effort to clamp down on information operations, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in France before the presidential election. The company said it was a priority to remove suspect accounts with high volumes of posting activity and the biggest audiences.

The company also explained how it monitored “several situations” that fit the pattern of information operations during the US presidential election. The company detected “malicious actors” using social media to share information stolen from other sources such as email accounts “with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets”. This technique involved creating dedicated websites to host the stolen data and then creating social media accounts and pages to direct people to it.

At the same time, a separate set of malicious actors created fake Facebook accounts to falsely amplify narratives and themes related to topics exposed in the stolen data.

Facebook did not specify which stolen data it was referring to, but we know that tens of thousands of emails were hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account and released by Wikileaks.

Nor did Facebook attribute the manipulation to any nation state, although it said that the company’s investigation “does not contradict” the findings of a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence that outlined Russian involvement in the election.

Russia has also been implicated in the hacking of French presidential frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, according to a report by researchers with Japanese anti-virus firm Trend Micro, published this week.

Facebook pledged to monitor attempts to manipulate the platform, to develop new ways of identifying fake accounts, educate at-risk people about how to keep their information safe, and support civil society programs around media literacy.

“We recognize that, in today’s information environment, social media plays a sizable role in facilitating communications – not only in times of civic events, such as elections, but in everyday expression,” said the report. “In some circumstances, however, we recognize that the risk of malicious actors seeking to use Facebook to mislead people or otherwise promote inauthentic communications can be higher.” – The Guardian

“The JTRIG unit of GCHQ is so notable because of its extensive use of propaganda methods and other online tactics of deceit and manipulation. The 2011 report on the organization’s operations, published today, summarizes just some of those tactics:

Throughout this report, JTRIG’s heavy reliance on its use of behavioral science research (such as psychology) is emphasized as critical to its operations. That includes detailed discussions of how to foster “obedience” and “conformity”:


An “I told you so” moment from Glenn Greewald


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