#Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince- The Manipulation of Social Media by Illiberal States

It would not be an understatement to call the rise of social media a paradigm shift within the narrative of modern history. The information revolution has so rapidly and profoundly reshaped discourse, perception, and ideology that appreciating its full impact on society is nearly impossible without the benefit of retrospection. The reformation of the way in which information is generated and openly exchanged across the globe has given rise to a reconceptualisation of information itself. For instance, fake news, alternative facts, and the emergence of post-truth politics indicate that information no longer derives its value primarily from its accuracy or authority, but rather from its virality. From the growth of ideological ‘echo-chambers’, such as The Donald and Gab, to the Twitter Presidency of Donald Trump, the intersection of social media and politics has produced revolutionary changes to the way information, society and governments interact.

While the impact of social media on liberal societies has been radical, for nations that roughly adhere to democratic processes, protect the freedom of expression, and operate within a market economy, the course has been somewhat organic. As social media represents a global free market of information rooted in liberal values such as free-speech, whose offerings are commoditised according to consumerist logic, the character of global social media can be situated within the broader extension of socio-political liberalism writ universal. However, for illiberal societies, the rise of global information sharing has presented a considerable challenge to the maintenance of traditional power structures.

The uneasy relationship between illiberal states and global social media has evolved in an observably segmented manner, as authoritarian governments initially responded to the information revolution in a predictably reactionary fashion. However, the recent Saudi state-funded ad-space blanketing of major social media platforms within the British region represents a new stage within the evolving relationship between illiberal governments and social media. The campaign to ‘Welcome Saudi Crown Prince’ Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS) to London by purchasing ad-space across Twitter, Reddit, and Google is demonstrative of a shift in the way that illiberal nations are using global social media, and its liberal nature, to benefit their national interests abroad.

In leveraging social media’s free-market character, including its offering of ad-space to whoever is willing to pay for it, Saudi Arabia has signalled a willingness within illiberal states to use the liberal essence of social media to overtly promote their national agendas abroad. The Saudis’ consumer behaviour-based marketing campaign displays a rudimentary, yet innovative, attempt to explicitly manipulate public opinion within liberal societies. By adopting the accepted discourse of social media advertising, a language that liberal societies implicitly understand, the Saudis have ushered in a new era in the relationship between illiberal nations and social media.

The initial response of illiberal states to the rise of global social media was, predictably, extreme censorship or blanket banning. It makes perfect sense that illiberal governments would view the global liberalisation of information and opinion sharing as inherently dangerous to the tight control over information that authoritarian states endeavour to maintain. Many of the most popular global social media sites are either outright banned, or heavily censored and monitored, within countries such as China, North Korea, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The bluntness of the early response to social media by illiberal states suggests that many did not immediately grasp the significance of the medium concerning its influence within the international sphere.

While the initial reaction of illiberal states to the rise of social media implied a level of ignorance concerning its significance, the second stage represents the growth of nuance and a strategic understanding concerning the power and influence of social media. Nations such as China and Russia, both technological powerhouses with sophisticated cyber capacities, rapidly came to realise that outmoded notions of state censorship were impractical in the face of the information revolution. These nations responded with a two-pronged strategy to harness social media for their national interest and transform social media from a threat into an asset within both the domestic and international spheres.

Internally, technologically savvy illiberal nations created their own state-run or state-sanctioned versions of popular global social media sites such as Vkontakte and Renren. These sites imitate the liberal nature of global social media in that they appear to extend to users the freedom to share opinion, information, and ideas. This mimicry allows citizens of illiberal countries to feel as though they are a part of the global information revolution while being effectively denied substantive access to the free interchange of information going on outside of their borders. Such tactics numb the sensation of being censored and allow for the population of illiberal nations to become digitally literate. State-run social media is also advantageous in creating state-controlled propagandist echo-chambers and for feeding curated information quickly and efficiently to large populations, while also allowing the state to easily monitor the opinions and ideas of its citizenry; all of which are essential elements within the maintenance of illiberal authority.

Up until recently, the way in which illiberal nations have used global social media to support their national interests abroad has largely been to exploit its open forum nature to spread disinformation and inflame ideological divides within rival nations. The operative strategy has been covert and surreptitious, with troll armies masquerading as citizens of other nations to legitimise the carefully crafted antisocial opinions and information they are spreading. The use of bot boiler rooms and troll factories to target controversial domestic issues and factionalise the liberal world has, so far, been both extensive and effective. It’s estimated that around 10% of Twitter accounts are bots and that there are hundreds of thousands of fake Facebook and Reddit accounts that take advantage of the free speech ethos of social media to clandestinely fracture liberal social cohesion.

From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, the abuse of the liberal values inherent within global social media by illiberal states seeking to destabilise the liberal bloc has proven to be a tremendously effective strategy in the game of realpolitik. However, with the explicit and conspicuous marketing campaign initiated by Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the visit of their crown prince to the UK, a new chapter has been opened regarding the utilisation of global social media and its liberal norms by illiberal states to strengthen their interests abroad.

In the days and weeks before the Crown Prince’s arrival, #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince –  underscores and all – was plastered across social media sites within the British region. As the majority of Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter comments on the Crown Prince’s visit were unfavourable, an interesting contrast between public sentiment and the cheery Saudi advertisement hovering off to one-side took place on screens across the UK. While it can be said with some certainty that the welcoming campaign was not an outright success in generating a groundswell of support for the visit, it is still important to look at what it represents regarding illiberal states interacting with social media.

Within Saudi Arabia, commercial advertising, like access to information, is highly regulated. Just as it is nearly impossible for Western brands to advertise within Saudi Arabia, it is highly unlikely that the Saudis would allow a foreign state-sponsored publicity campaign to go ahead inside their borders.  However, within the free market and liberal rights-oriented West, the ability of a state to advertise across major social media sites is possible so long as the funding is in place. The dichotomy in social and economic values between illiberal and liberal states puts illiberal states at an advantage concerning drumming up support for their national interest abroad via social media.

The Saudi marketing campaign characterises a novel and explicit use of social media and its underlying liberal norms to further the interests of an illiberal state. Unlike Russian covert operations aimed at creating a cyber fifth-column of fraudulent in-group members to manipulate the beliefs of liberal society from within, the marketing tactics used by the Saudis exemplify an overt strategy influenced by consumer psychology. As ad-space on social media is governed by the profit-seeking impetus of economic liberalism, cyber advertising campaigns often rely on the principles of psychological marketing to influence consumer behaviour. That the Saudis chose to promote their future head of state in the same medium and messaging style as large consumer brands is significant as it implies some level of awareness as to the effectiveness of such marketing in influencing behaviour within liberal democratic culture.

The #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign shrewdly leveraged both the omnipresence of ad-space on social media sites, as well as the consumer psychology-based advertising style that Westerners are accustomed to, in order to promote their country akin to how a company promotes its brand. It is impossible to know with certainty whether or not the Saudi campaign deliberately sought to employ psychological marketing techniques. However, it is possible to see how these techniques were nonetheless present in their advertisements.

Within advertising, effective frequency is a formula for exposing individuals to a message sufficiently to effectively communicate its meaning and have it internalised, even if subconsciously. Repetitive exposure seeks to create familiarity and manufacture the foundations of affinity and brand loyalty. While it is a stretch to think that the Saudis believed they could generate genuine affinity for the Crown Prince and loyalty to him within Britain, the hallmarks of neuro-marketing were observable within their campaign. The drip-effect within media theory proposes that mass media and advertising contribute to gradual changes in beliefs and attitudes over the long term, while the illusory truth effect is a tendency to believe the information to be correct or ‘right’ after repeated exposure. As such, the Saudis’ upbeat welcome promotion has, intentionally or not, set out the initial foundations of a brand marketing campaign that is engineered to slowly induce fondness for the subject within viewers.

It is more than likely that the goal of the cyber campaign, which was supplemented by a billboard rollout in London, was an overly-optimistic attempt to create a viral campaign online in the hopes of making it appear as though there is a base of support within the UK for close relations with the future Saudi leader. However, the Saudis’ use of social media ad-space to coordinate a marketing campaign in a fashion informed by the tenets of consumer psychology is an essential update in the way that illiberal states are able to use the liberal nature of social media to support their national interests.

In the end, the Saudis’ tone-deaf marketing campaign, featuring a clunky and obtuse hashtag paired with a picture of the Crown Prince looking slightly bog-eyed, did not accomplish much regarding a short-term manufacturing of support within the UK for this particular visit. The Crown Prince was faced with protests and even had his motorcade pelted with eggs, while online, within the mostly uncensored sphere of global social media, the Crown Prince’s warm official reception was thoroughly admonished. However, the Saudis’ social media publicity operation is still of consequence in that it represents a new stage in the way in which illiberal states exploit the liberal nature of global social media to benefit their interests. What is worth noting concerning the #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign is that it has opened a new frontier in which illiberal states are using social media ad-space to mount marketing campaigns aimed at endearing Western ‘consumers’ to their national brand.

CrimeStoppers providing safe haven for tax dodging Tory

Crimestoppers is an ‘independent’ crime-fighting charity. They operate largely on anonymous tips from the public and have genuinely been a force for good in tracking down and raising awareness of crime and terrorism. Despite this however, it is alarmingly apparent that they do not chase down financial crimes with the same veracity. This needs to change.

On first inspection of the board of directors, it is no surprise that the charity does not consider financial crimes to be worthy of public attention or criminal condemnation. This is because the board of trustees is packed with Lords and people who have won OBEs/CVOs/QPMs/CBEs/BEMs (i.e. not exactly representative of the country).

 

I have no doubt that the majority of those listed have genuinely good intentions, but I also know that they likely represent the upper echelons of the social classes. This results in an implicit bias towards not investigating ethically dubious financial behaviour such as those committed by the incorrigibly corrupt Lord Ashcroft.

We at The People’s News reported the various tax avoidance schemes employed by Ashcroft in great detail, and the BBC Panorama documentary exposed his activity to the nation. I, like many others, assumed this to be a turning point and that change was imminent. I was wrong, nothing has, or will change, because those who have the means to pursue such contemptible behaviour are also those most likely to be guilty of it. This, in part, is because they do not see what they are doing as criminal, which is technically correct as they are operating within the law. However, the reason this activity is still legal is because figures like Ashcroft donate (legally bribe) millions to the Conservatives, and his polling data is instrumental during election campaigning (e.g. if polls indicate a labour seat is vulnerable, they can channel efforts to the constituency in an effort to flip the seat to Conservatives).

Additionally, the reason the rich don’t feel like they are behaving criminally is because the consequences of their actions are deferred, making it easy for the wealthy to dissociate themselves from any wrongdoing. Alternatively, for example, if violent behaviour results in the death of another person, causation is clear (i.e. the actions of the aggressor were unambiguously the cause of death).

We are all somewhat guilty of overlooking the serious consequences of financial crimes, but I argue that they are far more pervasive than any physically violent crime. To illustrate this more clearly, let us reconsider the hypothetical example of violent behaviour resulting in the death of another person. It is painfully clear that the person who died, died as a consequence of the violent behaviour of the aggressor, and the aggressor will likely be criminally charged.

However, it is important that we clarify the criminal element of this hypothetical. For instance, violence itself is not illegal, and there are situations in which you can be violent such as in boxing and various other contact sports. Therefore, whether a person has committed a crime is predicated upon the consequences of the violence (injury or death), and not the violence itself. This is how the rich and the Conservatives are able to dissociate themselves from the devastating impact of their greed. For instance, it is difficult to argue that the consequences of a psychically violent crime were not the consequence of the violent behaviour by the aggressor because of the temporal proximity of the act and the consequence, whereas the consequences of tax avoidance are more nuanced and deferred, thereby allowing the aggressor (i.e. tax-avoider) to almost entirely dissociate themselves from any wrongdoing. Instead of tax avoidance immediately resulting in the death of another, it manifests slowly due to reduced funding for government support such as that provided by the NHS, and results in countless more deaths. Support for this loosely abstract comparison can be found in recent research published by the British Medical Journal that correlated this cruel application of a proven to be ineffective economic policy to over 120,000 avoidable deaths under during Conservative rule.

It is perhaps a tad inflammatory and hyperbolic to attribute these deaths to the Tories, but it is getting more and more difficult to resist this assertion when educated, non-political, people such as those being published in the British Medical Journal are correlating these deaths to the elite greed and contempt for the working classes. People like Ashcroft can no longer claim blissful ignorance. As of right now, given what we know about the impacts of this draconian understanding of economics, the elite can no longer dissociate themselves from the consequences of their actions.

I feel like this article has been crystal clear, but then again, I think we as a people are often blindsided into downplaying this type of behaviour. Therefore, the rest of this article will focus on trying to contextualise this in a way that I feel it warrants. To do this, consider the definition of the word ‘terrorist’.

We are accustomed to othering terrorists as predominantly Muslim, ISIS related scourges on democracy that use violence to push their agenda. However, no terrorist organisation of any affiliation can boast of killing 120,000 English people. We need to reconceptualise our understanding of the word violence. We all too readily recognise the physically violent behaviour that ISIS use in pursuit of political aims, but because of the deferred relationship between elite greed and the deaths of the most vulnerable in our country, it is difficult to inspire the same emotional response as that from death as a result of another’s violent behaviour. For instance, the 120,000 avoidable deaths reported by the British Medical Journal are not evenly distributed among the social classes, but instead, with almost surgical precision, they are heavily biased towards poor, working class people.  It is important to note that I am not suggesting this is an overarching conspiracy to suppress the working class vote by culling the population, but rather, an unintended, yet convenient, consequence of the greed of the elites.

If we want change in our politics we need to take a more active role in the politics of our country. Whether that be holding to account those that pursue criminal and societally pervasive behaviour such as Crimestoppers, or collectively condemning the legal bribes taken by the government from the likes of Ashcroft.

Finally, as I am sure many of you reading are deeply concerned about the criminal behaviour of those governing our country and those claiming to be upholding the law of the land, I encourage you all to call CrimeStoppers on 0800 555 111 and air your grievances.

Alternatively, you can anonymously report the behaviour by filling in this online form.

Corbyn is not anti-semitic but he is apathetic

 

Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have in recent days repeated the same rhetoric over and over. There is clear truth to the notion that being critical of Israel and its actions isn’t anti-semitic. However, describing all Jews as ‘Zionists’ or ‘zios’ and using this as a criticism is clearly anti-semitic. Many people who hurl these apparent insults do not take into account the person in question’s views or beliefs on Israel. These arguments simply group together all Jews and insult them on the basis that their religion talks about Israel as a homeland, regardless of what they think about the current state of affairs. These sort of messages are deeply hurtful to many Jews and are seen as anti-semitic by most Jews including myself.

I agree that Corbyn himself is not anti-semitic himself, however, he is apathetic to Jewish concerns and anti-semitic allegations within his party. The past few weeks of news stories have shown that Corbyn was and still is a member of several Facebook groups that contained explicit anti-semitic material. The latest story that has initiated the protests is a post regarding a mural. In this mural, bankers are depicted playing monopoly on the backs of the poor. The intention of the painter was to depict the bankers as rich Jews. For those complaining that the mural doesn’t resemble Jews explicitly, Corbyn himself admitted it was anti-semitic. This begs the question why Corbyn initially supported the mural staying up.

It is an insult to Jeremy Corbyn’s intelligence to suggest that he did not realise the content on these groups was anti-semitic and even more insulting to allege that he didn’t realise the content was anti-semitic at the time and only realised this fact 6 years later. It is becoming abundantly clear that Corbyn has the opportunity to distance himself from these groups, their members and their views, yet he fails at every opportunity to do so. Corbyn has become apathetic to the issue and mere public, carefully-worded statements will not cut it anymore. Prior to this month, the issue was Corbyn and Labour not expelling anti-semitic activists. Since then the issue has become personal to Corbyn. That is why many Jewish people protested along with supportive MPs this week. The cry is not to remove Corbyn or stop him being critical of the State of Israel. The call is for him to take firm, proper action on the major issue of anti-Semitism in Labour.

The rhetoric mentioned at the start of this article are damaging and help Corbyn hide from the issue at hand. It is time for people to stop defending the leadership’s apathetic nature.

Cambridge Analytica – Watergate without convictions

Instigated by a report in the Guardian on March 17th, the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica has now been blown into almost astronomical proportions. The scandal first broke surrounding the use of data mining in electoral campaigns; the harvesting of millions of Facebook user’s personal data in order to create personalised and targeted political advertising campaigns, that would influence voter preference. Following on from this, video footage from an undercover report into Cambridge Analytica uncovered admittance by a senior figure in the organisation, pertaining to the use of data mining, political entrapment and even the use of ‘honey traps’; the use of escorts to entrap politicians in sexual scandals.  Since the story broke less than one week ago, the fallout has been significant and international. Facebook itself has come under fire, losing over $60 billion in its stock value, facing lawsuits from shareholders, and with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg being summoned to several judicial reviews into the incident.

Scandals surrounding political influencing are nothing new. Campaign donor scandals, intentional spoiling of ballot papers; where there is democracy, there is the potential for scandal to emerge around elections and voter preference shaping. Where Cambridge Analytica becomes significant, however, is in three ways; its scope, its precedent, and the high likelihood that, when the dust settles, there will be no convictions or real legislative impact on this sort of growing arena. Though the accusations surrounding the use of ‘spies’ and ‘honeypots’ are nothing short of accusations of corruption, blackmail and extortion, it is important not to call for conviction until these charges have clear evidence. Evidence of data mining, however, is more than clear; it is undoubtable and unequivocal evidence of an operation to access, analyse and manipulate private information to produce ‘favourable’ election results for Cambridge Analytica’s clients.

What is primarily startling about the scandal is the international scale on which Cambridge Analytica is accused of influencing politics and elections. According to Straitstimes.com, the reach of Cambridge Analytica’s influence has been reported from Malaysia to Kenya; the latter being accusations that the success of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, was due to influence and management by the firm. Rumours have even begun to circulate that the Trump campaign had ties with the firm, with CNN reporting that the firm helped to establish the digital aspect of the campaign that – in Analytica’s own words- contributed significantly to the 2016 election victory. It has been near unanimous that political influencing is a thing of the past in modern liberal democracy. No longer. Here we have a firm being hired by politicians worldwide, accessing online data through the largest social media site in the world, to create personalised campaigns that sway voter opinion significantly – and such data mining is the most reputable thing the company stands accused of.

Focus on the data mining aspect of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, however, raises a more insidious point. A firm built around electoral campaigning, hired to process voter data and advise on electoral strategy is nothing new whatsoever; firms have been making millions advising in political campaigns for decades. What is scandalous about Cambridge Analytica is the fact that the firm mined millions of Facebook profiles to construct its analytical models. Regardless of whether you believe their attempted justification that all the files were ‘legally and correctly obtained’, what has occurred is that a private firm accessed, downloaded and analysed millions of user’s personal data, online preferences and private information, to create targeted advertising campaigns for politicians willing to pay highly enough. It is perhaps nothing short of the largest invasion of privacy we have seen in the 21st century. With the scope of such invasion of online privacy still unknown, Cambridge Analytica raises serious questions on how secure our private information is; especially with the ever-increasing commercialisation of social media, and societal reliance upon new technology and social media platforms in our everyday lives.

So, what can be done? Apparently, next to nothing. As far as international law relating to such cyber mining extends, it is increasingly difficult to keep pace with the exponential growth of the information sector. Though several criminal investigations in various countries are certainly a good place to start, it is highly unlikely that criminal charges will land on the heads of the senior figures involved. Political campaigns, from Trump to Kenya, have a certain degree of deniability surrounding the extent and maliciousness of the data mining undertaken; the same can be said of Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook group. Co-operation with the criminal reviews may even act to benefit them; though it is impossible to predict or speculate with any accuracy until the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s influence becomes clear. Though the scandal has created waves internationally, it is highly likely that the only real impact the scandal will have, besides the potential for a few arrests within the Cambridge Analytica organisation, is the fall of Facebook stocks.

One thing remains clear, however. With the continuing growth and centrality of the internet in our society, and with the increasing focus of using media platforms for all our personal information, the international community must respond to this scandal with a serious legislative framework; one that protects us as consumers, as individuals and as citizens, from such exploitative and invasive data mining again. We are people; individuals with rights, not data sets available to the highest bidder.

Austerity – Asymmetrical, abhorrent and avoidable

“Unless we deal with this debt crisis, we risk becoming once again the sick man of Europe”. This was David Cameron in 2009, addressing the Conservatives in Cheltenham on how best to deal with the wake of the 2008 global financial crash. More specifically, this was the beginning of the age of austerity in the Conservative party mindset – the treatment of our nation as a failing business that demanded sweeping cuts across the public sector. Cut to the beginning of 2018, and it was announced that Austerity had finally reached its targets of debt reduction – a full 2 years later than the brutalist model of spending reduction was supposed to. But how successful has Austerity really been for the United Kingdom and its future?

With the aim of reducing the national debt to a level that investment could begin again without compounding trillions in national debt, Austerity has been ‘successful’ –  it has finally succeeded in its core promise to reduce the budget deficit significantly.  Indeed, according to UKPublicSpending.co.uk’s estimations, the current budget deficit between 2010 and 2017 has fallen from £99.74 billion to only £14.04 billion. Though this is a considerable reduction in national debt, there are two key issues that prove the truly devastating impact of Austerity on the United Kingdom – the impact on the economic prosperity of the people, and the precedent set by both former and future conservative action surrounding the national economy.

To take national debt reduction as evidence that austerity has worked for Britain is almost laughably reductionist. Rather, austerity has led to significant economic hardship, regional economic disparity and a fall in opportunity for many. This is not to argue that societal hardship in times of economic uncertainty is surprising; rather, the extent of such hardship was widespread, brutal and largely unnecessary.  Take women in the national economy, for example. Due to austerity and the severe public spending cuts, female workers in the public sector have been most harshly impacted by this policy of financial subtraction. Due to cuts in tax credits, sweeping redundancies across largely female dominated sectors, and the growth of the casual job market as the only route back into employment, it is estimated that women have been 15% worse off as a result of austerity – equivalent to just over £70 billion lost in potential wealth. Similarly, massive cuts to the welfare system have severely impacted the lowest earners in our society – with a 2016 WBG assessment estimating that the lowest 10% of households will be 21% worse off as a result of austerity.  Austerity has had a similar regional effect, with massive cuts to budgets outside of the regional south leading to a disparity in unemployment. According to the Office for National Statistics, unemployment in the North East reached 5.8% in 2017; compared with 3.3% in the South East. It is no complex conclusion, therefore, that the effects of austerity have been not only significant, but wide ranging and unequal.

But it is the failure of the neoliberal consensus that makes austerity not only brutal, but unnecessary. It must be conceded that the wake of the 2008 financial crash demanded a somewhat revolutionary economic response. In a world with families being kicked out onto the streets, Multinational banks closing and national economies such as Greece almost collapsing under the weight of their debt, to maintain the economic status quo would have achieved little else but gradual and unavoidable economic collapse.  But to claim, as the Conservatives did, that Austerity was the only solution is not a problem of debt but of failed foresight. The problem itself relates to the consensus of privatisation and state reduction that has prevailed since the 1980’s. The need for economic revolution after the brutal conditions of the 1970’s, coupled with a political desire to appeal to the electorate, led to a shift in economic models; away from taxation, and towards venture capital and debt. This allowed of economic growth based on lending, debt and speculation, whilst pacifying voters by protecting their ‘hard earned money’ from the evils of taxation. At the same time, the growth in faith that the private sector facilitated economic revolution led to mass privatisation, the shrinking of the state and the sale of numerous sources of government revenue, external to taxation. How, then, does a state fund itself whilst maintaining this ethos of low taxation and sale of its own revenue streams? Any attempt to increase spending through taxation, after the prosperity of the 1980’s, would have been little else but the proverbial bullet-in-your-own-foot; thus, the money must be borrowed or gained from the sale of government assets.

This is where the problem of failed foresight emerges. Austerity was not inevitable, had the neoliberal consensus recognised that privatisation, low taxation and increasing focus on debt was the recipe for economic crisis on an unprecedented scale. Austerity is the product of ignorance to the inherent fluctuations of capitalism; an ignorance that removed any state capability for self-investment, any capability to reinvigorate the economy and consumer confidence, and any ability to enact any alternative to brutal cuts that affected millions. Not only did the population face severe cuts, it also faced negative real wage growth. The UK achieved the 2nd worst economic performance in Europe between 2007 and 2015, only Greece managed worse. The nation sank to the bottom of the OCED wage growth index in 2018.

Perhaps more troubling than this, the rhetoric surrounding austerity removed the decision from the political sphere. The Conservative government made it appear as an unavoidable evil that we, the people of Britain, would just have to grit our teeth and bear the severity of. It is important, now more than ever, to challenge the ideas around austerity as a ‘success’ and those who seek to remove debate and democracy from political decisions. If light is not continually shed on how brutal, unequal and unsuccessful austerity has been for the current and future state of Britain, then we leave ourselves prone to this kind of unnecessary rhetoric again; perhaps even as a cover for more inherently unequal policy.

Lords delay Dickensian changes to free school meals, but they must be overturned

Approximately 30% of children live in relative poverty in the UK, and for most of these, school meals are the only way in which they get a hot meal each day. However, under proposals voted through by the Conservatives last week, which children get Free school meals will be changing in line with the controversial Universal Credit system.

With 1.3 million children claiming free school meals, there is clearly an issue in Britain with child poverty, and we can all agree that for such a developed country this is a disgrace. Under new plans, The Children’s Society and The Labour Party claim that “over a million children will be without a hot meal in schools”.

Under the new proposal, those earning over £7,400 from work and on Universal Credit, your child won’t be entitled to FSM if they’re in Year 3 or above. But by this definition, the government is effectively saying that if you are earning even one penny over the means test threshold (£7,401), you aren’t in poverty and you can afford to feed your child. This, to put it lightly, is atrocious.

With the cost of living increasing, and real wages going backwards, many people who has a household income of £25,000 per year are struggling to cope, let alone £7,400. For example, the Minimum Income Calculator shows that a couple with two primary school age children need to be earning £19,230 per year EACH to have a decent standard of living. Yet the government argue that if you’re earning over £7,400 per year, you don’t need your child to have free school meals. This is nothing short of a disgrace. The reform is yet another example of a Tory government that simply does not understand poverty.

The Government estimate that if earning “around the threshold of £7,400” and on Universal Credit, families would have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 when benefits are taken into account. But with the aforementioned Minimum Income Calculator statistics, its clear that earning in the government estimated amounts per year from benefits and work simply isn’t enough to live comfortably. And once again, it must be emphasised that if you earn £8,000 for example, and are on universal credit, you aren’t going to be eligible for FSM.

So what can we take from this? Well, clearly, less children will be receiving FSM in the future, and this could have a devastating effect on their education and lives as a whole. It’s a known fact that during childhood, proper nutrition is important to academic success. If a child isn’t eating enough, they will struggle in school and in their normal home life as a whole. Free School Meals offer them the chance to eat a hot meal in school and combat malnourishment caused by poverty. The Conservatives clearly don’t care about this.

The Labour party were desperate for these plans to go ahead, this meant the Tory party needed further support. The solution, buying of the DUP. Promising that Northern Ireland would be excluded from the proposals so they got the bill through the Commons. This is, in my view, political corruption, and while not punishable in any way by parliament, it should be by the electorate. So many children in the future will be adversely affected by these horrific changed, and we must fight them. Winning the vote by 312 to 254, the Labour annulment failed, much to the displeasure of the  Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who promised to “continue to campaign for free school meals for the poorest children”. The fact the DUP knew that doing this was wrong, evident by the fact the initiative will not go ahead in Northern Ireland, yet voted for it anyway is disgusting.

I recently wrote to my local MP, Conservative Whip David Rutley, and his response back was simply an attack on the Labour Party, not a justification of the new policy. Claiming that Labour have lied about the policy and that no children will lose FSM in the future, Mr Rutley was insistent that this policy would be beneficial, inserting the claim that 50,000 more children will be eligible for FSM in the future. While this may be true to an extent, we have a rising population so naturally, with more people going into a state of poverty, and his party failing to combat this, of course more children will need to be eligible for FSM in the future.

On 20th March however, the government was dealt a damaging blow, when a motion proposed by Labour Peer Steve Bassam urging the government to halt the changes to its Free School Meals policy, and this motion was won by 167-160 votes. While having no complete power over government policy, this shows that even the Lords don’t agree with the policy. The lack of coverage of this by the Mainstream Media is disappointing, as not only is this a crucial blow for the government, but it also shows that the Lords have some relevance after all.

While they should be a fully elected body, the fact they’ve rebelled against the government shows that they can have a purpose. Obviously, they haven’t stopped the government on this issue, they at least have the chance to influence and stop them from putting forward such a disastrous policy.

The debate on Free School Meals is one that must not be brushed under the carpet. We have a duty to help our vulnerable children in poverty, and the governments careless and thoughtless policy will only serve to damage the lives of these children and indeed, their families, even further. We must stand up and fight the government on this issue or else face the most vulnerable group in society suffering even further.

Tory East Cheshire Council face six police investigations

Currently facing SIX ongoing police investigations, the Conservative led Cheshire East Council has been in the firing line recently for its perceived corruption. It all started when it was revealed that the Executive had controversially awarded contracts to a company belonging to the physiotherapist of former Council Leader Michael Jones £70,000 for an academy in Crewe, bypassing normal procedures to do so. In addition Jones is also being investigated for falsifying air pollution figures and his conduct as a Councillor. Another senior figure, Mike Suarez, is under investigation for allegations of bullying.

Earlier this year, it was reported by the Macclesfield Express that police had opened two further investigations into the council, while further bullying claims have since arisen from staff members at the troubled council. The government considered placing the council under special measures, however since the investigation by the government, nothing has changed, and the council remains in a state of utter chaos.

Popular satire magazine Private Eye named the council as ‘Filthy Liars of the Year’ last year on the basis of their falsification of air quality figures, and this title couldn’t be more appropriate. A failure to pay some staff the National Minimum Wage sparked one of the many police investigations into the group, with it being revealed that the council were ‘fully aware’ of the fact that care workers within the local authority were being paid below the minimum wage.

In September 2017, 10 of Cheshire East’s Independent Councillors called upon the Cabinet to resign or face special measures. No action was taken. The cabinet remains as it was, and the Secretary of State Sajid Javid has since taken no action at all, despite a petition of over 2,000 signatures at the time.

So why has no action been taken by the government? Residents of the authority argue that it is down to the fact that the Conservative Government don’t want to acknowledge the problem facing the council, so they are choosing to ignore them. With police investigations piling up, many residents argue that it’s time for action to be taken.

Laura Smith, MP for Crewe, has also contacted the Secretary of State, voicing her concerns, however it’s clear that these concerns aren’t shared by the government, perhaps as a result of the fact that at the end of the day, the council has proven to be very loyal to the Tories ideological pursuit of austerity and other policies, with Smith passionately campaigning for more funding for the care sector from the council.

The inaction of Macclesfield MP, David Rutley, to address the public concerns into the council only further shows the lack of concern that the Tories have about Cheshire East. The council is failing residents, with austerity policies affecting areas such as the buses in the local authority and the care sector, and calls for meetings to be closed to the public.

Councillor Laura Jeuda of Macclesfield South Ward recently claimed that council staff are ‘too scared to speak out’ regarding the bullying that is claimed to be going on at the Council, with anyone who threatens to blow the whistle on the practices and treatment of staff being told they will be dismissed according to the councillor. Many have linked the rumours surrounding the aforementioned Mike Suarez scandal to the bullying accusations, so its entirely possible that this abuse of staff is a long-term issue embedded into the group.

This week it was also reported that the Council had contracted the group ‘Orbitas’ to oversee the continued care of Macclesfield Cemetery, however pictures on social media revealed that the area had fallen into a state of disrepair. Contractors were accused of ‘recklessly damaging’ memorial stones after car tracks were found to have driven over memorial stones. While the council has since come out and denied any involvement in this, the fact that they were accused in the first place demonstrates the low regard the council is held in.

Of course, local Tories haven’t kept totally quiet about the council’s issues, and the leader, Rachel Bailey has said that given that the executive had delegated investigations to the police, it was clear that the Conservatives were taking necessary action to combat allegations. However, twitter account CheshireEast Exposed claims that “everything that is wrong happened when she sat in cabinet or was Leader of the council”.

Buses have been a dominant topic for local residents in regards to the shortcomings of the council. Cuts to local bus services have been brutal, and as reported by The Crewe Chronicle, a Crewe bus campaigner said planned cuts to bus services were ‘unbearable’, pointing out that bus users would suffer while suspended officers were being paid full wages for example, when the buses bore the brunt of austerity.

With the council clearly not listening to its residents, and the Vice Chair of Macclesfield Constituency Labour Party, Rob Vernon, calling it ‘the most shambolic, most corrupt council in the United Kingdom’, it’s becoming clearer by the day that Cheshire East is suffering. While the outcomes of the ongoing police investigations are obviously unknown currently, residents have been left expecting illegal wrongdoings by the council leading to judicial action. The current regime seems unable and unwilling to fix the issues, and Labour/Independent councillors last year called for an executive made up of people from all parties. This proposal was thrown out by the Tories, who are clinging onto power. But with the local elections for the borough in 2019, and more citizens of towns like Macclesfield and Crewe coming forward to speak out against the council, could Labour stand a chance of finally restoring order to the council in disarray? Early signs look positive for Labour candidates, and in turn, Cheshire East residents themselves.

Retraction: We stated previously that “Jones’ successor Mike Suarez is also under the spotlight for allegations of bullying.” This was incorrect. Mike Suarez did not succeed Jones as leader of the council and is instead the chief executive of the council. We also stated “with leader after leader resigning, from Jones to Suarez” again Suarez did not lead the council and nor did he resign. Suarez was suspended and has not resigned.

Can the special relationship overcome Trump’s protectionist dialogue?

For ultra-Conservative politicians like Nigel Farage, Anglo-American relations have never been better. With Trump in the White House and Britain leaving the EU, it was time to celebrate. When Farage stepped into the lobby of Washington’s plush Hay-Adams hotel earlier this month, to deliver a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, one would be forgiven for glossing over the fact that Farage wields no power in the corridors of Westminster.

Nevertheless, the current pastiche of Fox-branded Conservativism is central to the Trump presidency, and it is the Trump presidency that will forge a new era in Anglo-American relations post-Brexit – one that Brexiteers believe will ultimately result in an iconic US-UK trade deal surpassing anything that could have been offered by Brussels.

It seemed Mr Trump agreed, hosting Theresa May just days after his inauguration. The Prime Minister was the first international leader to visit the White House in the Trump administration, and very obvious attempts were made by both sides to reaffirm the “Special Relationship”. Mr Trump held Mrs May’s hand on the walk down the colonnade and assured the world’s media that the US will always have Britain’s interests at heart, likening their relationship to that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

It was great PR from both sides, but as with many subsequent press conferences from Trump and May, it lacked any evidence of substantial policy to provide certainty as to how this relationship would work in practice. Naturally, the two nations will always continue to collaborate and defence and security matters and will be natural allies in global conflict. For example, Trump affirmed his commitment to NATO, and the two nations reached an agreement in December 2016 to deploy US-built F-35 fighter jets on the Royal Navy’s new fleet of aircraft carriers.

However, the success of Theresa May’s government lives and dies by the completion and success of Brexit. 52% of the population, we are told, voted to take back control of Britain’s borders and statute books, and give Downing Street the power to agree its own trade deals. Therefore, a crucial marker for the success of any post-Brexit government will be its ability to strike better trade agreements for Britain than if it were a member state of the EU. Naturally, all eyes will be on trade negotiations with the US – its largest single-nation trading partner, when Britain leaves the EU in 2019.

Similarly, Donald Trump’s presidency lives and dies by his perceived ability to ‘Make America Great Again’, with his ‘America First’ rhetoric appealing to voters in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where the decline of traditional industries has caused jobs and incomes to stagnate. It should come as no surprise to anyone Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has significant implications on the administration’s approach to global trade. After all, his campaign speeches often criticised the Obama administration’s handling of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

What started as vague threats on Twitter has recently turned into real action, with Trump announcing tariffs of 25% tariff on steel and 10% on aluminium imports on March 9th, a move which apparently triggered the resignation of Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser. This followed announcements in January over tariffs on solar panels and washing machines – all decisions made in Trump’s mind to protect American businesses and give a competitive advantage to US-based manufacturers, by increasing the prices of foreign goods.

Although the White House has offered exceptions to the tariffs for America’s, the move has been heavily criticised by China and South Korea, who supply the US with aluminium, steel and white goods. They both believe that the policy violates World Trade Organisation rules, though Washington argue that the tariffs are in the interests of national security under Article XXI of the WTO treaty. At the time of writing, European Council president Donald Tusk is urging the US to resume trade talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, in response to Trump’s threat of increased taxes on EU cars.

So where does this leave Britain? Clearly, protectionist trade policies and threatening America’s most important existing agreements in TTIP and NAFTA make for a less-than-ideal environment for Liam Fox and his team, tasked with eventually securing the US-UK trade deal promised at the start of Trump’s presidency. Fox’s first task is to ensure the UK will be exempt from the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium while it is still a member of the EU, a tariff that has many British companies such as Jaguar Land Rover very worried.

As for the wider promise of securing a US-UK trade deal after Brexit, it’s clear that Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to global trade will most likely make for an uncompromising approach to future talks with London. The UK’s aviation industry has already expressed concern over compromises to existing agreements, which could limit flights between the two nations. Boris Johnson was right to claim that the UK was “first in line” for trade talks with the US, but Trump’s current stance suggests his loyalty to his domestic supporters will outweigh any concessions the UK can expect on trade talks in the name of the ‘Special Relationship’.

Blairite MPs support government over Russia sanctions

Just hours after Theresa May announced sanctions against Russia following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury last week, Labour MPs have tabled a motion in Parliament backing the Government, opposing the line taken by Jeremy Corbyn.

Early Day Motions, which have no chance of being debated and are purely symbolic, is being organised by John Woodcock, chair of the Labour Backbench Defence Committee and arch-hawk on military and defence issues. Many of the others are from the right of the party, associated with the Progress faction.

Responding to May at lunchtime, Corbyn called for the maintaining of “robust dialogue” with Russia despite the high-level bilateral contact being suspended. He also criticised the savage cuts which the Conservatives have carried out to the diplomatic service, with the Foreign Office cut by 25% since 2010.

The exchanges were tense as Corbyn raised questions of the Prime Minister, including what steps were being taken to provide Russia with a sample of the nerve agent for their own analysis and if any analysis has been carried out to try and ascertain where the nerve agent was produced.

The MPs behind the EDM, many of whom are longstanding critics of the Corbyn leadership and led the coup in summer 2016, are falling in behind the Government line. This comes just hours after the French Government announced they want to see definitive evidence and proof of Russian involvement before taking action.

As a member of the Privy Council, Jeremy Corbyn will have had access to intelligence that Labour backbenchers haven’t. There are rumours that some frontbenchers may be willing to go as far as to resign in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories.