The Leeds Infirmary fake news is part of a greater problem

Ten years ago, the concept of Social Media being used to influence political outcomes and spread division was largely unthinkable. Indeed, Social Media a decade ago was simply a growing and exciting new way to connect with people, stay in touch with friends and, to the delight of teenagers and bored employees everywhere, play games. In the modern era, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are integral to the social and political state of the world. From breaking news alerts to the grandiose confusing tweets of certain world leaders, it is central to the spread of information, debate and the persuasion of electorates. It is also the most dangerous threat to our democracy and the most unregulated form of information in the world; a fact that the controversy surrounding the “Leeds Hospital” scandal has proved.

The development of Social Media for political engagement has led to it’s development as a tool of political manipulation. The major platforms, notably Facebook, profit from allowing for the “pushing” of content that is neither fact-checked or source-checked. Based on its data algorithms, this allows users to push content and ideas to target groups through social media, without needing to verify their source or provide proof of their claims. Similarly, there are no restrictions on account creation – all it takes is an email address and a name – meaning that any number of accounts can be entirely fabricated and held by an individual or group. Whilst this has benefited advertising and commercial interest greatly, who can user social media algorithms to reach target demographics much more effectively, the political implication is severe. 

No story encapsulates the risk of unregulated social media and content targeting more than the controversy surrounding Leeds General Infirmary. The event in question refers to a photo circulating of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia who, due to short staffing and a lack of beds in Leeds General Infirmary, was forced to sleep on a pile of coats on the floor of the waiting room. As the image circulated, uproar grew over the lack of provision available by the NHS, restricted due to systemic budget cuts and failure to retain nurses. Indeed, Leeds General Infirmary have confirmed the photo in question was true, and have apologised to the boy’s family for the lack of provision available.

There are many caveats to this story that make it so significant. From Boris Johnson pocketing a reporter’s phone as they showed him the photo, to the proven falsehood of a “senior Conservative source” regarding the now disproved punching of Matt Hancock’s aide at the hospital, the scope and continuing curiosity of events make it hard to cover all aspects in 1500 words. However, the aspect that is most significant, and in no uncertain terms to our democracy, relates to the spreading of disinformation by unidentified “Bot Farms” and social media firms on major social media platforms. First appearing on one individual social media account – the user of which, who will not be named due to their personal concerns for safety – the following message was shared:

“Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother”

The post then goes on to detail how the photo had been apparently fabricated, before describing it as “another Momentum propaganda story”. Whilst the details are concerning, they are also false – there exists no “Leeds Hospital”, the photo had been corroborated by Leeds General Infirmary itself, and the user in question claimed hacking having stated no affiliation to anyone in the medical profession or, indeed, the city of Leeds.

Within a matter of hours, hundreds of Social Media accounts had shared the message, in various online groups and locations seemingly designed to maximise impact. As shown by Marc Owen Jones, one target of the “March Cambridgeshire Free Discussion group” – a Facebook group with over 37,000 members – created significant engagement and disgust at the proposed fabrication of the photo. The beauty of a disinformation campaign, from an objective perspective that overlooks the egregious and disgusting campaign to vilify a young child in hospital, is that it only takes a few successful placements of the story for the lie to go viral. Indeed, most of the sharing and dissemination of the story after the initial period came from real accounts and verified users; notably conservative figures, a telegraph columnist and former international cricketer.

Now, the problem of political misinformation is not one that is brand new to politics. From the recent controversy surrounding CCHQ and its false branding as “@FactCheckUK”, to the actions of Cambridge Analytica, Social Media has become to political organisations a means of misleading, persuading and dividing electorates. It is entirely unregulated, and in fact facilitated by social media platforms themselves. Therefore, as two senior politicians put forward in April 2019, “We cannot allow these harmful behaviours to and content to undermine the significant benefits that the digital revolution can offer”.

These are the words of Sajid Javid and Jeremy Wright, formerly home secretary and culture secretary respectively, in their “Online Harms” white paper. The document, available here, was commissioned during the final months of Theresa May’s premiership. It outlines the dangers to society and politics that unregulated social media poses, both domestic and international, before recommending the introduction of regulatory frameworks and bodies to prevent the spread of harmful or misleading content, and actions that threaten the public safety or interest.  Whilst the exact details of their proposal have been condemned by some as Draconian censorship, the White Paper itself represented a concerted addressing of the dangers of unregulated social media to British society, politics and Democracy.

So where is the regulatory body and the white paper in the wake of the “Leeds Hospital” Scandal? Eight months after the publication of the White paper, it is nowhere to be seen in parliamentary discourse. Whilst perhaps the December election might explain this, the political landscape has not been in it’s favour either. Dominic Cummings, a veritable Tsar of Online disinformation and Social media manipulation, is now senior adviser to the Prime Minister. The PM in question spreads misinformation at an alarming rate, ranging from his former journalistic controversies to contradictions over the future trade relationship with Northern Ireland after Brexit. Sajid Javid, co-presenter of the White paper itself, now sits as Chancellor in a Government who’s political wing falsely branded itself as a fact checking service to spread political propaganda. No regulation exists; instead the governing party of the United Kingdom actively utilises the platform for disinformation and political manipulation for its own interests.

It is a point that needs repeating. Social Media offers a platform through which private interests can push disinformation, manipulate opinion and erode democracy. The governing party of the United Kingdom, having published a report and white paper on the dangers of this to our nation, have elected instead to use it to undermine their political opponents and deflect from their own shortcomings. The proclivity of the non-discerning user to believe their Twitter feed, and suspect their trust in media outlets, means that many will refuse to believe the truth of a young boy forced to sleep on coats due to the overstretching of a systemically reduced national health service.

The need for regulation has never been clearer. Social Media is one of the great developments of the digital age; facilitating the advent of new forms of communication, self-expression and connection. It is also the greatest threat to democratic institutions and political trust in the unfortunate post-truth era. Without regulation and restriction on Social Media platforms that facilitate disinformation, Politicians and private interest groups will continue down the past of post-truth and online manipulation to divide and conquer the electorate. Whilst the White Paper may not be the right course of action, it represents the right response to this.

If the trend of growth and digitisation continues, Social Media will not only become the central source of information in society, but it will also be filled with bots, fake information and private interests seeking to manipulate opinion and truth. Without regulation, we face a near-Orwellian threat to our lives; our democracy, our freedom of information and, perhaps, freedom of thought is at stake.

The blues can never be green: why the pausing of UK fracking is an election ploy

After the calling of a general election for December 12th, British politics has taken yet another unpredictable and exciting turn. Already the major political parties have begun to outline their election strategies; from the repetition of Labour’s 2017 strategy that boasts all the optimism of a Manchester United fan’s opinion on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to the Europhilic platform of the Liberal democrats that so nearly distracts from their voting record. 

With headlines dominated for so long by the haze of Brexit that it may now be the national sport of the United Kingdom, one might be forgiven for forgetting the very identities and positions of the mainstream parties outside of the European question. Thus, when the Conservative party announced the “suspension” of fracking operations in the United Kingdom, anyone who has taken an interest in the growing environmentalist movement worldwide would be forgiven for assuming this as the actions of a party that cares about the planet.

Fracking – one of the more contentious methods of extracting shale and natural gas – has received a large degree of public scrutiny in recent years. The potential for geological disruption, resulting in the increased chance of earthquakes and threat posed to local communities, is one of many ecological risks associated with the process, implemented at various sites nationwide. Andrea Leadsom, Business Secretary in the Johnson Government, argued that it was the right move for the Conservative government, who were “following the science… until the science changes”.

Leadsom — who infamously questioned on her first day as Theresa May’s Energy Secretary if climate change was real — seems here to justify the suspension of an environmentally damaging practice; until the point that the facts and circumstances change to allow the government to continue it again sans critique. Here we see the government enacting a temporary suspension of a profitable but ecologically destructive practice, until the science or circumstances change that justify them continuing with the destructive business.

Despite the Orwellian doublespeak of Leadsom, the move is nothing short of part of the election campaign launch of Johnson and the Conservative party. Forgetting for the moment the irony of a campaign centred around the idea of Britain deserving better than the brutal imposition of austerity and political buffoonery masterminded by the Conservatives themselves, Johnson’s political ethos focuses on the notion of “getting things done”. Let us get Brexit done, as the Conservatives cry, and we can focus on getting things done for the police force we have cut, the health service we have dogmatically hollowed, and on resolving the environmental crisis. Suspension of fracking, regardless of its motivations, is in the eyes of the Conservatives at least something they have actually got done in the past years of political weakness and ambiguity.

Indeed, one might be forgiven for forgetting what the political parties of the United Kingdom still stand for in these uncertain to-say-the-least times. The Conservatives can certainly be pointed to as the party of action when it comes to environmental considerations; they cannot be pointed to as the party of environmentalism. This is the party that abolished the department of Energy and Climate Change in 2016; the party that removed subsidisation of renewable energy construction and restricted the ability of renewable energy sources to develop in the United Kingdom; the party that ended the programme of sustainable home development due to a lack of profitability for investors. This is to say nothing of the continued support and subsidisation of Nuclear and non-renewable energy sources; many of which are not only unsustainable, but themselves not profitable. The fact that the Johnson Government has acted to temporarily halt fracking operations in the United Kingdom is simply a drop in the polluted ocean that Conservative policies and ideological profit-focus has helped to create.

This is hardly surprising. It is long documented that free market policies such as those championed by the Conservatives are wholly incompatible with ecological considerations; considerations which require the sacrifice of short term and individual self-interest in order to protect the common long-term good. Such profit-focus is integral to the continued dogmatic adherence to Neoliberalism that runs in the very blood of the Conservative party; an ideology that champions the free pursuit of self-interest for all, giving no consideration to considerations outside of capital and profit. Since the days of Thatcher’s gutting of regional communities, to the willing ignorance to the risks of the most profitable course that led to the Grenfell disaster, the Conservative party have long established themselves as the party that cares only for immediate economic success above any and all else. This perhaps explains why, before the enacting of such an election stunt, the party has been such a champion of fracking; almost a perfect metaphor for the extraction of short-term value with no regard for local communities or long-term sustainability.

It may be worth a modicum of congratulations to the Conservative party. Since Johnson took over as leader of the party and the country, the suspension of fracking is perhaps the one true item that the government can, unlike parliamentary votes and PR visits to hospitals, say that it has achieved success in. Make no mistake, however, the suspension of fracking is in no way motivated by a desire to protect the environment or communities affected by fracking. It is nothing short of a rudimentary and basic election tactic and attempted evidence for its “get things done campaign”; a crumb of success that will be weaponised as a counter argument to the myriad of environmentalist criticisms. When the “Science Changes” in the event the Conservatives win majority in the next election, such a suspension will be quickly and quietly repealed, leading to the next inevitable story of a small community ravaged by fracking disaster. 

As far as Environmentalism is concerned, the Conservative party line is evident; that the planet and the people that rely upon it are an afterthought, until the next chance for Johnson, clad in an ill fitting sports top or hopefully at the top of another zip-wire, to weaponise it for his own party’s success.

The release of Robinson is not an affront, but a warning sign

Tommy Robinson, founder of the EDL and an influential figure among the rapidly organising British Far-right, was recently released on bail from his sentence for contempt of court, with his conviction quashed by leading judges to be retried in the near future. Perhaps it is fitting, or perhaps ironic, that Robinson, who was jailed for contempt due to his attempts to influence the result of a court trial on paedophilia, has himself been released due to the apparent mistrial of an influenced judiciary proceeding.

Following his release, Robinson has already addressed the media, thanking the support of right-wing and anti-Islam figures such as Gerard Batten of UKIP, and has spoken of the apparent “mental torture” he endured during his sentence. Within hours, Robinson has already politicised the issue and seemed to martyr his ‘torture’. Without doubt, this is not a miscarriage of justice; it is, without doubt, a key moment in British politics that should not be overlooked or underestimated.

The decision to release Robinson on bail pending retrial is not itself an issue, but instead evident of the merits of our judicial system. One of the cornerstones of our judiciary system is the protection of all, regardless of ethnicity, religion or political belief. It is the correct decision, given the inevitable bias and mass coverage of the incarceration of such a politically active figure, to re-evaluate his incarceration and maintain the legitimacy of our judiciary system. Like many people, my personal opinions of Robinson’s beliefs and actions are exceptionally negative; this does not mean I would support the denial of his fair trial based on political beliefs.

The key issue that will rise from the release of Robinson is not judicial, however, but political. Robinson, who pleaded guilty in his original trial, almost certainly knew that his actions would lead to imprisonment. Though his release has perhaps arrived sooner than anticipated, the rhetoric that will arise from it remains the same; rhetoric of victimhood, political incarceration and an assault on the freedom of speech of his beloved ‘common [white] man’.  Robinson now has, alongside the near fanatical following and calculated political ability, a false story of his heroic imprisonment; jailed for his valiant defence of the good English people, victimised by the oppressive state and the evils of the Islamophilic Elite.

His incarceration has the potential to act as a flag behind which the insidiously growing far-right of this country can rally behind, as evidence of their imaginary assault against their freedom of speech and the necessity of their growing violence against those who oppose them.

Perhaps the near fantastical picture painted above needs some degree of justification. Such justification is not, by any stretch, difficult to come across. The violence of individuals and groups affiliated with such organisations as the FLA is already widely documented, including the assault on Steve Hedley following his speech at a counter-demonstration against the FLA. Recently, Far right activists, 3 of whom were UKIP members, attacked a socialist bookshop in London. The ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ petitions on such sights as change.org received tens of thousands of signatures. Darren Osbourne, who it must be stated is placed at the most extreme end of the political spectrum, was reportedly obsessive over the speeches and posts of the EDL before committing terrorism with the Finsbury park mosque attack. Even in peaceful political protest, the far-right attracts figures in the thousands at their marches and demonstrations; this is both a significant figure and evidence of a growth and mobilisation unseen for decades.

As argued by Owen Jones, in Robinson, the Far right now has their Oswald Mosely figure behind which they can further rally and organise. The far right now has its martyr, its leader, and its champion.

This is not something that anyone who respects our society, our democratic process, or generally human decency, should allow to happen unchallenged. The views and rhetoric of this movement, be it from the alienation and hatred of an ethnic denomination, to growing organised violence and unrest, is symptomatic of progression towards fascism and variants of fascist political support. Though it may be the right of all in our society to freedom of opinion, such views must be challenged, their validity wholly disproved and their growth prevented. It is the job of not only the left but all in society. Make no mistake – this is not an issue that can simply be swept out of sight. The far right now is an organised growing political group with a leader perceived as an apparent martyr; now, more than ever, is the time that they must be proven wrong and stopped.

Free speech – How the far-right got it so wrong, and why their violence shows this

Unity News

Last week, I wrote an article discussing the growth of the FLA and rising organisation of the far-right. The post itself has drawn a lot of comment, both from supporters and critics of the FLA. Based on such debate, I feel it necessary to clarify a few of the statements made in that article – primarily due to the point itself being entirely overlooked by many who were quick to denounce the article as an “attack on free speech”.

Robinson, former leader of the EDL and regularly seen denouncing Islam as a violent and radical religion, promotes hate and incites division based on racial and religious prejudice. His incarceration is not an attack on free speech, but a product of contempt for court and justified under the rule of law in this country. Anyone who thinks Robinson’s arrest is about free speech is simply objectively incorrect.

Rhetoric surrounding the FLA (and yes, the far-right) seems to cry for victimhood. People now apparently feel that to receive criticism for their incitement of hatred towards Islam, or indeed towards any societal group, is an attack on their right to freedom of speech. This criticism, in actuality, is a product of freedom of speech; freedom of consequence. If you are free to believe and speak what you think, then it is natural that your argument will face criticism which, in itself, is freedom of opinion and the free expression of the opposing individual’s beliefs. It is naïve to assume that criticism is an infringement upon your rights, when in fact the free exchange of ideas and debate is a cornerstone of the democracy we all take for granted.

Similarly, there is a distinct difference between freedom of speech and the incitement of hatred, bigotry and violence. It is perfectly acceptable, as the FLA does, to take opposition to acts of terrorism in this country and across the western world. It is not acceptable to the describe Islam as a violent and twisted religion, both because it incites hatred and is false. Footage from an FLA march in London shows key speakers referring to immigrants and people of the Islamic faith as “the enemy”, before marchers then swear and threaten violence towards the “traitors” in counter-protest demonstrations. Robinson has previously threatened all Muslims stating

The Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our British citizens killed, maimed, or hurt on British soil ever again..

Such threats are not empty in nature; pro-Robinson supporters assaulted a Union leader in an unprovoked, targeted assault, following his speech at the 14th July counter-demonstration to the free-Robinson rally. That is the truth of the FLA, they are violent and authoritarian. They want to force a selective freedom, which of course isn’t freedom at all. Steve Hedley, the man who was attacked, stated afterwards:

“It’s alright having free speech for Tommy, but if you oppose Tommy you get attacked with a glass and a chair”

The picture at the top of the article shows the state Tommy’s supporters put him in.

Make no mistake, the hypocrisy is clear. If you believe in freedom of expression, then to denounce and incite violence towards those exercising their right to protest is, in essence, an attack on free speech. These “patriots” cannot claim to be defending our freedom of expression and democracy, when they themselves incite violence, and denounce the right of those opposed to them to protest and express their distaste. This is a group that describe immigrants and those of the Islamic faith as violent and twisted, before then threatening violence to those who do not agree with their radical position. This is, no matter how far the imagination is stretched, a group that operates on intimidation, violence and hatred; and not one that can claim to be fighting for the good of freedom of speech and our democracy.

In reality, there exists a simple argument that those who support Robinson and the FLA must understand.

Democracy, and your right to freedom of speech protected by it, are not under attack. The government is not threatening or enacting violence due to speech. You are free to oppose acts of terror, and to be “patriotic” if that is what you choose. But when the FLA and its affiliates commit violence and incite hatred, do not bury your head in the sand and shout “free speech” when all those who oppose your false view use our right to freedom of speech and prove you wrong. Such sentiments have no place in the 21st century; it is the job of those opposed not to suppress them, but to disprove them.

 

 

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The FLA is a growing threat that we must address

In recent years, an insidious trend has begun to return to British politics – the emergence of an organising and unifying British far-right. The Football Lads Alliance (FLA) has emerged as a unified protest group for the far-right, growing from several football supporter’s groups that oppose the perceived extremism of Islam and Islamification of the United Kingdom. The group has pulled in significant support, with Tommy Robinson a vocal supporter, and prominent members of political parties, such as Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom and UKIP leader Gerard Batten, speaking at rallies and events.

The group is not organised as a modern political party, but rather as a protest group of significant size. A brief examination of their website sees the immediate statement that the group does not accept any form of terrorism and holds a commitment to “Being inclusive and acceptable to all colours, creeds, faiths and religions”. Their actions and their evident platform suggest otherwise.

Their platform revolves primarily around a ‘fight’ against the perceived victimisation of the British people (who, it should be noted, are almost exclusively white in the eyes of this group) by Islam and communism; Luke Bailey of I news, who attended a FLA and Far right rally, noted the repeated links made by key speaker Anne-Marie Walters to a conspiracy of Islam and global Communism to “criminalise you [the British people]”. The FLA point to stories of migrant crime and the growth of extremist Islamic groups, many of which are exaggerated or simply false, as justification for the growing fight against radical Islam, which they themselves use as the justification for racially motivated attacks and criticism of all those of the Islamic Faith. Similarly, the group significantly opposes the current incarceration of Tommy Robinson, describing it as an attack on free speech. Robinson, currently incarcerated on a thirteen-month sentence for parole violations and contempt of court, remains an affiliate of the FLA and an apparent ‘martyr’ of the Far-right.

The somewhat ridiculous nature of their platform, however, is largely irrelevant. What is relevant is their organisation and growth. On Change.org alone, there are several petitions to the government to free Robinson, varying in support from several thousand signatories to over 600,000.

A recent march in London drew an estimated 15,000 supporters, seeing violence and aggression towards police and only a few hundred counter-protestors. Their rhetoric on social media, which paints the ‘working man’ as the victim of multiculturalism, Europe and the malevolence of elites finds significant success in drawing support from those who feel left behind by neoliberalism and multi-culturalism, with support for the movement growing daily. In no uncertain terms, what we are witnessing is the rise of an organised and extreme political movement; one that espouses rhetoric of victimhood, racism and violence.

Regardless of your opinion of the state of British politics today, the rise of an organised far-right poses a significant threat to the peaceful democratic processes and social cohesion that has been constructed for decades in this country. Yet the government seems not only sceptical of response but passive in allowing the growth of this movement. The Conservative party, though occasionally commenting from their PR wing about the issue, hides behind the issue of Brexit to shed their responsibility to this serious issue. It is thus the job of the opposition and the left to respond to, and to stop, this growth of racism and nationalism that is continuing to grow in this country. Already, the Labour party, as well as grassroots organisations including Stand up to Racism, have begun to address and fight back against the growth of the far right. Senior figures in the Labour party, including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, have called for parliamentary debate on the growth of the FLA and the far-right, whilst Stand up to Racism have been instrumental in counter-protesting the demonstrations of the Far-right.

But to truly address this, more support is needed. The Left must continue to raise the issue of the growth of the far right to the national rhetoric, else create the possibility that the growth of such an insidious and organised movement goes unnoticed. Counter-demonstrations, such as the one organised against the planned 14th July march to free Tommy Robinson, not only show the far right that there is organised opposition to their movement, but helps to highlight that the people are opposed to such racist and nationalist political sentiments. Make no mistake – the growth of the Far-right is an issue that must be taken seriously. The FLA represents the most serious attempt at an organised far-right movement in Britain since the disintegration of the BNP, with an unprecedented 15,000 people in attendance for the march held on June 9th. If the government is too busy hiding from responsibility under the guise of Brexit negotiations, a theme that continues to recur since the referendum, then it is the job of the Left and the opposition to respond, undermine and challenge the growth of the FLA and the Far-right movement. Such sentiments have no place in the 21st century, our country or indeed modern politics itself; it is our job to fight them.

The death of the Liberal Democrats could create a more dangerous centrist party

The Observer recently revealed that, for the past year, business leaders and philanthropists have been developing a new centrist political party, in an effort to help “Break the mould of Westminster”. Led by LoveFilm CEO Simon Franks, the Project One movement – though it is safe to assume this is a working title whilst the party structure is formed – aims to break ground in the coming year, with significant financial backing and rumoured links to key centrist figures, potentially including Tony Blair.

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of the story, however, has been the response from the left and commentators from that political position. Quick to denounce the proposed party as irrelevant and simply the Liberal Democrats in a new format, it is a striking consensus amongst the left that the Project One movement is, from the very offset, doomed to fail before it starts. As Matthew Cole entitled his somewhat scathing dismissal of the proposed movement, “A new centrist party for Britain? Good luck with that.”

However, such willingness, and apparently joy, to leap to conclusions that the Project One Movement will have no impact are somewhat naïve. By no means do I suggest that, instead, the Project One movement will be in Downing Street in the blink of an eye – far from it. The direction of the movement is yet to be established, but it is widely reported that the party will focus primarily on local elections and activism before moving towards national elections.  It is almost certain that, at least for the remainder of the decade, the political landscape in Britain will remain largely unchanged; as we are begrudgingly dragged by the Conservatives towards the inevitable hard Brexit very few signed up for.  The current British political climate, however, seems poised for some form of revival and revitalisation as we approach the new decade – and, if the Left is not careful, such revitalisation may just come from the often-neglected centre ground.

Opinion polls serve as the perfect example of why Centrism has been overlooked for providing this revitalisation. As of March 18th, YouGov polling put the increasingly right-wing Conservatives at 44%, with Corbyn’s Labour second at 41%. The Liberal Democrats, apparently perceived as the indicator of Centrism in Britain, polled at merely 8%. From this data alone, it is an easy conclusion to assume that centrism is losing its footing in the increasingly polarised political landscape of Britain. There are, however, several reasons why this is wrong -and why the Left should be conscious of the attempted Centrist resurgence of Project One.

Primarily, the assumed failure of Centrism in Britain is down to the polarisation of British politics. With the Conservatives increasingly leaning further to the right, and Corbyn’s consolidation of Labour making the party move closer towards its socialist roots, the previous conditions of the mainstream parties as near carbon copies of each other are gone. By no means, however, does the polarisation of the traditional parties equate to the full polarisation of the electorate. Centrist tendencies do largely remain in Britain; many who voted Labour or Conservative in the last general election were, in fact, centrists, aligning themselves with the political party they deemed most appealing.

Therefore, the apparent continuation of this national programme of radicalisation, of both Labour and the Conservatives, has led to the increasing alienation of these ‘swing centrists’ of the 2017 election. The fortification of socialism in Labour rhetoric increasingly alienates the moderate aspects of the party, in the same way that conservative incompetence and hard-line policy choices have begun to alienate moderates on the right. Similarly, it was only in recent history that a Blairite Labour party won three consecutive general elections, on a platform of centrist political ideas and liberal capitalist governance. Unless the Mandelson propaganda machine was the most effective political influencer ever to exist, it is not an inconceivable concept that the British electorate is open to the ideas of centrism.

Indeed, large proportions of the British electorate are themselves sceptical of the increasing radicalism of the traditional parties. On the right, the incompetence of many senior ministers (notably a certain Mr Boris Johnson) have led to increasing questions about the ability of the May administration to break the mould of national stagnation in Britain, brought about as a product of severe austerity. Similarly, the whirlwind rise of ‘Corbyn fever’ has gradually begun to slow down. Though the true extent of the issue with Labour remains contested. With the combination of ineffectiveness and scandal miring the traditional parties, and in turn gradually increasing the public perception of current politics as ‘out of touch’, a new and fresh political approach from the centre may lead to widespread support, from both the disillusioned moderates and the often-forgotten swing centrists.

There is, however, one key question that attributes to the oversight of the traditional parties towards British centrism – if centrism is still popular in Britain, why have the Liberal Democrats not capitalised upon it? Put simply, it is because they are incapable of doing so. In a previous article for The Peoples News, I discussed the possible ways in which the Liberal Democrats could begin their potential resurgence; breaking the old and stagnant image of the party and its unwavering Europhilia, in order to appeal to swing voters and British moderates. The Liberal Democrats have done none of these things. The party clings to the old guard under the stewardship of Vince Cable; though an exceptionally capable politician, he is a leader out of touch with the current state of British politics, and one who continues the impossible fight against the inevitability of Brexit. Perhaps the only thing that the Liberal Democrats have done to ‘revitalise’ themselves is half-heartedly try and appeal to what they believe are the political interests of the youth vote; attempting to poach votes from the unwavering Labour youth support, with half-hearted promises of legalisation of Marijuana. It is, rather sadly, evidence of the continued slow death for the party.

The decline of the Liberal Democrats, however, is precisely the reason why the left should be worried by the Project One movement. With the fall of the previously incapable centrist party comes the possibility of a new, more effective centrist opposition. Indeed, if the rumoured affiliation with Blair and other senior figures are to believed, then the party should have potentially significant understanding of how to portray political competency, attractive policy and to appeal to the greater electorate. Neither should the movement be ignored simply due to its infancy. The AfD in Germany was formed as recently as 2013 – and in 2017 has gained 12.6% of the overall vote share. The Movimento 5-Stelle in Italy, formed in 2009, now holds the largest proportion of votes in the Italian parliament. If a political movement has a well-defined strategy, an understanding of how to appeal to the electorate, and what can be described as an increasingly Liberal Democrat-shaped hole in the political landscape to capitalise upon, it is not a wild assumption that they may find significant success when thrown into an increasingly polarised and restless political landscape.

Speculation surrounding Project One movement suggests they will not look to national elections until 2022 – meaning the party should not pose any significant political threat until roughly the time at which Britain formally withdraws from the European Union. If, however, the party can establish a foothold as a rising political alternative over the next couple of years, emerging at the most uncertain time in modern Britain, then it is not an outlandish idea that the Left, if wanting to maintain the success they have found under Corbyn, should be wary of Project One. If not, Corbyn and all those within the socialist Labour party may find themselves facing a revitalised brand of centrism and political opposition; one which may appeal more to the post-Brexit political landscape of Britain as it moves into the 2020’s.

It’s time to address the classism in our higher education system

Universities, and higher education in general, have not strayed far from the mainstream media’s attention in the past year. From contention over further raises and stratification of the tuition fee system, to raging debates surrounding free speech and the proficiency of campus ‘Safe spaces’, higher education has been at the forefront of public attention. Yet there exists a serious and wide-ranging debate that, through its own fault or otherwise, the media and public attention has largely overlooked; the classist nature of higher education, and the access of graduates into the sphere of higher employment.

There are a few disclaimers that must be addresses before this issue can be properly addressed. Primarily, by no means does this critique of classism, inherent to higher education, reflect a desire to abolish the current system of maintenance loans and grants – quite the opposite. The system of student finance has experienced great success in providing higher education to those who otherwise would have been excluded from such arenas. Indeed, a critic of the loan system need only look to the United States to undermine their own argument; where access to the highest standard of higher education requires an exorbitant degree of financial cost – to attend Harvard, including accommodation and associated costs, requires on average $63,205. Similarly, highlighting the classist nature of higher education and the internship system by no means detracts from the progress made already in creating what largely Conservative rhetoric describes as ‘social mobility’. Grant schemes, the tuition loan system and diversity schemes have been an exemplary step in the right direction, benefiting those of a lower socio-economic standing, BEM members of society and others disadvantaged by the social and economic conditions facing Britain today.

Yet there remains a prevalent issue within access to higher education, and access to the graduate job market, that limits the potential of our most capable members of society – primarily on socio-economic grounds. To truly address the inherent classism in the higher education system, it is important to focus upon three key areas of the current system enacted in the United Kingdom; access to higher institutions, the stability of those of poorer backgrounds within higher education, and access to the graduate job market upon graduation.

Let us first address access to higher education itself. It is no secret that educational success is linked to socio-economic position. From the use of tutors, to access to higher quality education through private schooling, the ability to finance greater standards of education separates those of a higher socio-economic position from those who rely upon free education in the state system. OECD research into the issue has found that, not only does income disparity and access to private education create a rift between those of different socio-economic positions, but that those whose economic fortunes have allowed for higher qualities of education have greater inequality of economic success than those who lacked such opportunity. Similarly, the rhetoric surrounding loans for tuition dissuades many from higher education, seeking instead to earn as soon as they leave higher education for fear of financial insecurity. Though there are cases which subvert such a trend, the statistical data is nothing short of unchallengeable evidence of the essential classism in the route towards higher education.

There is perhaps a simpler way of demonstrating this for those who argue ‘it is not about your position, but your work ethic’ –  according to research from the Higher Education Statistics agency, the academic year of 2012/13 was a record year for admittance into higher education for those of a lower socio-economic standing. That figure stood at merely 32.3%. Critics may argue that in 2017, those from state schools made up just under 90% of students accepted into higher education – yet fail to recognise the true nature of such figures. Of the total students in secondary education (including those in 6th form or otherwise), only 6.5% are educated privately – yet over 10% form the body of accepted students in higher education. Given that roughly 20% of the total school students in the UK go on to attend University, that 10% of students attended the statistically insignificant private school demographic is not only startling, but evidence of structural inequality in opportunity.

Nonetheless, recent years have seen a significant rise in the proportion of those from worse socio-economic backgrounds gaining access to higher education. By no means, however, does the issue of classism end with access to university. Given the significant increase in cost of living, whether through the extortionate student rental market, incentivisation of the student ‘party’ culture or rising cost of simple subsistence, the external costs of higher education continue to rise as the student loan system becomes more restrictive under Conservative governance. As a result, many students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds find themselves having to balance employment as well as tuition. The University of Birmingham, for example, lists the average cost of one year of rent and associated costs at £7,308 – almost double the minimum maintenance loan that most students receive. Without significant financial backing, students from worse off financial positions face either deferment or employment throughout university, simply to meet the rising costs associated with higher education. Such requirements for subsistence has severe impacts upon the ability to study out of contact hours, leading to greater stress, higher propensity for mental health issues and overall lower academic results. In this regard, students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds face more numerous, and without question increasingly significant, hurdles in achieving better results from higher education than those of a more privileged economic position.

This is before addressing the most significant aspect of the inherent classism present to the higher education system; access to the graduate employment market. Popular rhetoric would have the casual observer believe that it is simply a matter of ‘working harder’ and ‘wanting it more’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Access to the graduate job market is now, more than ever, predicated upon previous experience and internships, especially in London, where a significant proportion of these opportunities are based. The fact that the average median monthly rent in London alone exceeds £1,400 is evidence alone that the internship system is indirectly discriminatory to those of poorer socio-economic backgrounds, or those who resides outside of the nation’s capital. Yet there exists a culture through which both wealth and nepotism is the best route towards graduate jobs. Those with contacts in large scale firms – especially those with cheap family or friend access to the London housing market – find themselves in a privileged position to access the largely unpaid internship market. The recent expose in the Guardian, written by Amalia Ilgner, is perhaps the best example of this. Having interned at Monocle magazine, Amalia found herself in a position of significant responsibility – having been accountable for duties including client interaction, data analysis and content contribution. Her compensation for a nine-hour shift extended to only £30 – at around £3.33 an hour, it covered little more than travel and lunch expenses. Given that employers inherently favour those with previous experience (Internships being the best route for young professionals to prove such experience), the high costs of accessing these opportunities excludes many sections of society who, despite equal effort, dedication and commitment to the dream of social mobility, are excluded simply by socio-economic position.

Though there has been a distinguishable degree of progress towards an equitable playing field for graduates, it is simply not enough. Student finance, though a step in the right direction, disincentivises many from the sphere of higher education, with fears of future financial insecurity. For those who do access the higher education system, rising costs of living restrict their ability to study, with the necessity of employment increasingly infringing upon education and leading to poorer results. For those who survive such constraints, a lack of connections and financial stability places them in an inherently unequal playing field within the graduate job market. It is time for society – from government to the public – to address the inherent inequality and classism rife in our higher education system; to create a system in which our most talented members of society – regardless of class, race or socio-economic position – can truly rise to the top and create a better future for Britain. If Britain truly believes in the possibility of social mobility, it is about time we systematically started acting like it.

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.

Ben Bradley’s actions spark protests in Mansfield

In recent weeks Ben Bradley MP has been mired with political controversy, propelling Mansfield into the forefront of the national political focus. The market town in north Nottinghamshire, has the potential to become one of these locations that great political shift begins from. Such controversy has centred around the three key scandals of his time as MP; his membership of a far-right political Facebook group, revelations about controversial blog posts made several years ago, and what has been referred to in both the media and social media as Corbyn’s ‘Czechgate’.

Though the Conservatives in the region scramble to right the ship in the wake of Bradley’s political blunders, the damage has already been done; sparking demonstrations in the region that have gained national support from such prominent figures as Owen Jones and senior officials in the Labour party. Mansfield is a typically overlooked political constituency, having been largely bypassed during the great striking battles between the Conservatives and the Miners unions in the 1980’s. Similarly, it is not a great place of electoral change, with only UKIP gaining any new territory on the 70 years of Labour dominance over the region’s seat in parliament before Bradley gaining the seat from Labour in 2017.

Mr Bradley’s comments have caused serious political damage causing national criticism to such a previously passive constituency. Ben Bradley was already known for his radically right views, having previously written that the police had not used sufficient force in dealing with the 2011 Tottenham riots, and his fears that the United Kingdom would be “Drowning in a vast sea of unemployed wasters”. The revelations of his current Facebook activity have done little else but compound these criticisms. His membership of a far-right political group has sparked widespread condemnation; notably for the radical nature of the group’s political proposals. Such stances on policy within the group include the full privatisation of healthcare in the United Kingdom, the full sale of all council houses nationwide, and even discussion surrounding the idea of ‘workhouses’ for those in severe debt. The key question being asked by protesters, and indeed many groups nationwide, is how such Victorian views, unrepresentative of both Mansfield and the general electorate can be held by a democratically elected member of parliament, especially in 21st century Britain.

Such scandal was made significantly worse by the emergence of ‘Czechgate’. Citing at the time unconfirmed reports surrounding a former Czech operative in the 1980’s, Bradley made defamatory accusations towards Jeremy Corbyn; going so far as to accuse Corbyn as a collaborator with the former Soviet Union. A senior figure in the Czech administrative department has since commented, saying that these accusations hold no factual merit and are entirely false. If there is perhaps one rule in politics, its not to accuse the opposition of being an enemy intelligence agent based on a report that emerges as false. Though Bradley has since apologised to Corbyn and the Labour party, as well as offered charitable donations to a charity of the Labour leader’s choosing, it is substantially difficult to revive a political career damaged by a candidate’s own false cries of treason.

It is for this reason that several hundred activists protested in Mansfield on the 24th February. The Peoples News spoke to Elsie Greenwood, one of the campaigners and activists from the Mansfield campaign on the 24th February, who stressed the importance of Labour remaining active and proactive in helping to raise awareness of the issues surrounding Ben Bradley and the Conservative party.

“I think it’s important we don’t get complacent.” She stated, “It’s clear, the conservatives aren’t fit to govern, and disaster after disaster is proving this. However, as Labour activists whilst publicising their errors we must all prove to the electorate that we are the better party to govern. With such an incredible manifesto, we now need to talk to not only Labour voters on the doorstep, but previous Conservative voters and newly registered citizens”

Regarding the actions and comments of Ben Bradley, she emphasised that his incompetence and slander is not only evident from the past, but has continued into the current political climate.

“The truth is, whether you’re 19 or 45 you should be held accountable for your actions. The comments made were vile, and it shows he has no sense of reality. Whether he should receive major repercussions for his previous statements is debatable, but ironically he hasn’t stopped making inappropriate and ignorant comments.”

It is clear that Ben Bradley is yet another example of the political disasters that have mired the Conservative party in recent years. With the rising youth movement of the Labour party, and the growing consensus that the Conservatives are struggling to retain political competence in Brexit Britain, the revelations surrounding Ben Bradley could not have come at a worse time for the party. The question remains, however, as to whether Ben Bradley should face repercussions or removal for his political ineptitude – and as to whether Mansfield may be the beginning of the Conservative slide out of Number 10.