Wednesday 31 May 2017

On the BBC Election Debate

The very moment Jeremy Corbyn confirmed he would be attending this evening's BBC Election Debate in Cambridge, Theresa May lost the night. Whether the last day of May will, um, prove to be the end of May remains to be seen. Yet to hide from a debate and sending a subordinate to do it for you is a catastrophic mistake, especially as your pitch is all about your super-duper leadership. I hope it will erode her strong and stable branding among those kippers, normally-Labour-but people, and soft Tories set on giving "her team" a punt. And so, straight away, without Amber Rudd uttering a single word on her boss's behalf, the Prime Minister is wounded and her party is down on points. Only something exceptional could have won it for them.

Nevertheless, this debate was not without risk for the Labour leader. In 2015 when Ed Miliband appeared alongside the leaders of the other parties, minus Dave, it arguably fed into the coalition of chaos narrative the Tories ran with deadly effect. Having Rudd turn up loses that advantage - but there were still two possible difficulties Jeremy had to avoid during the debate. The first was Rudd herself. Unlike May, Rudd appears to relish these kinds of events and by sending her along the Tories thought Labour would put Diane Abbott up - in fact, she was daft enough to say so herself. Nevertheless, Rudd is a shouty, aggressive debater who goes straight in for character attacks. The way she filleted Boris Johnson at last year's referendum debate gave us an idea of what might have been in store. The second problem is how the tri-force of the Greens, SNP, and Plaid will play (seriously, why even is UKIP there?). Rudd was bound to talk up the possibility of coalition, so did Caroline Lucas, Angus Robertson, and Leanne Wood oblige the Tories and challenge Jeremy to take them up on it? Again, Nicola Sturgeon's coalition gambit in the 2015 debates inadvertently helped Dave get his message across. Similar talk hasn't bedeviled Jeremy anywhere near to the same extent, so you had to hope he had something prepared on this.

With those dangers in mind, the objective for Jeremy tonight was to squeeze the non-Tory vote as much as possible and start making inroads into the Conservatives' electoral coalition. Inducing a few cracks in it so the support starts trickling away from May and towards the smaller parties (or suppressing a despairing Tory vote) is, at this juncture, helpful.

In the end, there was no need to be worried. It was a scrappy debate as voices were raised and they tried drowning one another out. It meant Rudd's hyper aggression didn't materialise and her attacks on Labour barely registered either in the studio or the audience. This played to Dave's advantage in 2015 because he was able to assume the mantle of outsider, as someone picked on by the nasty SNP and the others. Rudd, on this occasion, wasn't able to strike the underdog pose. Having your boss arrogantly refusing to take responsibility was always going to do that. She had a go with the coalition of chaos nonsense but it fell flat. Dave succeeded because in making it about leadership he did at least turn up to one debate, and was able to let his opponents do the rest for him. This time there wasn't too much bickering between the anti-Tory parties. Leanne Wood laid a glove on Jeremy over Labour's record in Wales and its record in voting down progressive initiatives brought to the Assembly, but that was as far as it went. Angus Robertson wisely toned down the Scottish independence angle, even to the exclusion of mentioning another referendum, thereby denying the Tories a helpful attack angle and irritating English voters who, well, find it very irritating.

What would the take homes be? I think the small parties will all be pleased with their performance. Even Nuttall turned in a pitch his dwindling band of kippers would find cheer in, even if he was at one point reduced to shouting "What about Hamas?". Tim Farron had a good night with some of the best lines, such as "Where is Theresa May tonight? She might be outside your house, sizing it up to pay for social care." And I think the standout performances came from Caroline Lucas and Robertson - the latter for her enthusiasm but effectively targeted passion, the latter for his forensic dismemberment of the Tory record.

The ones that mattered were, of course, Jeremy's and Rudd's. As I said, Rudd was drowned out and when she was given space to speak her attacks were blunted and rendered ritualistic by weeks of robotic repetition without anything positive to offer. How would it have played among the undecided at home? It's unlikely to have stiffened the resolve of voters thinking of voting Tory. Perhaps Rudd wasn't on form, she is recently bereaved after all, which makes May's decision to send her along not just cowardly, but heartless too. Likewise, while the format didn't allow Jeremy to be as effective as his Paxo grilling, it was strong and stable, to use that phrase again. He got in attacks on food banks and homelessness, education, and was given opportunity to set out Labour's stall on terrorism and security. There were no wobbles, no difficulties, no sign of the alleged weakness attributed him by others. He set out and did what he needed to.

Will this debate have a material effect on the election outcome? If it does, it will impact most on the Tories. To have all the party leaders attack May for being frit is sure to put doubt in some minds. Cracking her coalition is the game, and at this stage every vote that drains away from the Tories makes the prospect of an overall majority, let alone a landslide, recede into the distance. No clear winners then, but one very obvious loser.

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Ferry Corsten - Venera

Or, to give the full title, Ferry Corsten presents Gouryella - Venera (Vee's Theme). This is included on his latest album, Blueprint (a sci-fi concept album, no less). Perhaps I'll write about it once things have died down. Anyway, enjoy!

Monday 29 May 2017

May vs Corbyn: The Verdict

It's a misnomer to describe this as May vs Corbyn seeing as it's not a head-to-head debate, but it is true that tonight's Battle for Downing Street could settle the question of who-to-vote-for for millions of undecided people. As anyone who's been out canvassing in this campaign will tell you, there are plenty of them about. For each leader their encounter with Paxman relates to their campaigns differently. For Theresa May, whose strategy and messaging has collapsed, it's about turning round the Tory party's fortunes. They still command leads in the polls but have lost ground thanks to three things: the dementia tax, a rubbish, arrogant campaign, and the strong campaign Labour has run. While for May tonight was about salvaging a victory from the mess, for Jeremy Corbyn it has to be on building on Labour's dynamism and carry the poll surge upwards. Success for either leader can be measured by how convincingly May depicts Labour as a security risk, and how Corbyn paints the Tories as a risk to self-security. Paxman's job, meanwhile, was to get under their skin and show up the contradictions and problems of both.

How did it go?

Like last time, each 45 minute slot was broken into two parts - questions from the audience (one third Tory, one third Labour, one third undecided), and the second half a grilling from Paxman. Corbyn went first and took questions on the IRA and nuclear weapons - following a path firmly trod by a right wing media and a government increasingly desperate to weaponise any old rope against him. Unexpectedly, he received applause for setting out Labour's position on immigration (which subordinates numbers to perceived economic necessity) when, previously, this has was regarded a major Achilles Heel. He took a question from an alleged former Labour supporter who owned a small business and was worried about a rise in corporation tax, plans to introduce VAT charges to his children's school fees, and zero hour contracts. Very sensibly Corbyn hit the one nationist high road to talk about how spreading fairness was in everyone's interests, and that businesses like his would benefit from operating in a more benign environment. Not the class struggle Trot response many Tory supporters, and no doubt the questioner himself was hoping for. Also asked on his fitness to lead, he replied that telling people what to do isn't a sign of leadership - listening is. As he put it, "You should never be so high and mighty that you can't listen to someone else and learn something".

It was a very strong performance that attracted praise from across the commentariat, including unlikely plaudits from your Dan Hodges and Nigel Farages. We then moved into the grilling from Paxman and, to be honest, Corbyn looked just as unruffled as he was during the first half. Some frustration did get the better of him as Paxo kept jumping in without giving him chance to answer a question. And what questions. Considering this man used to be regarded as Britain's best political interviewer, he wasn't on form tonight. Totally misunderstanding how Labour's manifesto is put together and having no clue about our traditions of collective discipline made him look bad and ill-tempered. You knew Paxo was in a sticky wicket when he was berating Corbyn for not getting the abolition of the monarchy and scrapping Trident into the manifesto. Bizarre. He then reverted to IRA/Hamas and state security matters. Corbyn is so practiced now at handling these sorts of questions that an interviewer of Paxo's experience should perhaps have focused on other things instead. Nevertheless, Corbyn escaped unscathed without a single glove landing. A commanding performance. Strong and stable, you might say.

We all know Theresa May avoids the public like a vampire recoils from garlic, so in many ways she approached this as an unknown quantity for millions of people. And how did she do? With the audience she took questions on police numbers, the NHS, and the dementia tax. While some were hoping for a collapse that didn't happen, but her approach wasn't relaxed either. It was classical Westminster: you take the question and make a real meal of it, refusing to answer and covering up gaping chasms with vague generalisations and padding in the hope of crowding further questions out. I didn't find it convincing, but then I know what to look for. The method aims to convey the impression that the speaker knows what they're talking about and draw any controversial sting from it. Here May performed competently enough, though a quick aside on the "uncosted" Labour manifesto drew snorts of derision and mocking laughter from the audience.

How did she do with Paxo? Remarkably, or not considering he is a self-confessed one nation Tory, the question style was a relaxed but occasionally awkward chat. Less politics, more the analyst's couch. There were next to no interruptions and May was allowed to waffle on as she pleased. However, she almost came unstuck at this more sedate pace. She was troubled by the dementia tax, repeating her pat answers of the last week. She was taken to task for going back on her word over calling the general election and was challenged over Brexit. As Paxo had it, the people in Brussels would look at Theresa May and see "a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire". Unfortunately, his loyalties got the better of going for the jugular and she was given the space to row back and waffle some more. In sum, she didn't perform badly but almost came undone under the gentlest of pressures. Not a good look.

While it didn't have any material outcome on the 2015 election, The Battle for Number 10 was part of the theatre of that campaign. David Cameron was slippery and slick, yet mostly able to look the part - which was his sole discernible talent as Prime Minister. And Ed Miliband came over as passionate but a little bit awkward. Remember "hell yeah I'm tough enough"? It confirmed opinions already baked into voters' decisions. Tonight? Most people have an opinion about Corbyn, for good or ill, thanks to the blanket coverage he's received for nearly two years. And after his exceptional performance, some may have had their expectations confounded. May on the other hand can give good speech at set piece events without questions, but did she look like someone who can cope with criticisms? Did she look like someone competent enough to oversee the Brexit negotiations? To Labour people and others who follow such things, obviously not. It is to be hoped that after tonight many millions more have drawn a similar conclusion.

Sunday 28 May 2017

The Worst Tory Campaign Ever

It's hard to feel sorry for Theresa May. So hard even a big old softie like me can't manage it. She might presently enjoy double-digit leads in some polls, but the campaign is not going to plan. To think, it could have been very simple. It should have been very simple. With a huge lead in the polls all May had to do was be very boring and robotic - an effortless task - and carry on Brexiting this and Brexiting that. The public would have switched off, but she'd have got back into Number 10 over the electorate's snoozing bodies. Everyone knows strong and stable is a load of bollocks, but you've got to at least look the part. And she did, for a time.

Consider the dementia tax debacle alongside the means test for winter fuel payments and abandoning the triple lock on the state pension. Just why? Dave achieved a Tory victory because his scaremongering about nuclear weapons and a Labour/SNP coalition frightened enough people into voting for them. When you make people feel insecure, it gives the Tories an advantage. The lesson lost on May, however, is you're not supposed to issue naked threats. When your passage to victory demands the annexation of the volatile UKIP vote, it's the height of stupidity to be seen to destabilise the core support in the arrogant belief they have nowhere to go. The question going begging is why a politician of May's experience and her aide, Nick Timothy, could make such a mistake?

Consider this. Labour's manifesto is a collaborative effort. Shadow cabinet members and their spads all contributed to the drafting process. There were debates and discussions among the leadership and it finally went to the NEC for approval. At each and every stage more than one brain was making a contribution. How different this is from the Tory approach. Timothy, intuiting his boss's intentions, was left to get on with it himself in the utmost secrecy. Apparently, not even Lynton Crosby himself saw a draft until the day before it went to the printers. And we know what happened - because no one saw it, no one was exercising oversight, no one was there to say "hold on Nick, this isn't a good idea". That's how we have the politically damaging dementia tax and the gross underestimation of the schools' breakfast spending (Timothy had budgeted 7p per day per child), and why the manifesto spectacularly unraveled. Such is Timothy's much-vaunted genius that he derailed the campaign and forced May to make a humiliating climb down almost entirely on his own. Labour couldn't ask for a more effective sleeper agent.

After a few days pause which Theresa May tried her presidential damnedest to look like a strong leader, uncomfortably for her her past has come up. While the Tories and their media friends are determined to drag politics back onto Jeremy Corbyn's relationship with Sinn Fein in the 1980s and 90s, it's May's relationship to police and intelligence budgets that's now posing the Tories the most difficulty. Yes, crime is in long-term decline, but we know that has little to do with the reduction in police numbers. Deficit determinism was the hallmark of the coalition government - actual need (as well as economic realities) played second fiddle while the Treasury taps were turned off. And Theresa May as Home Secretary was perfectly happy to go along with this. Therefore, if the attack lines cast by Amber Rudd and "Handbags" Fallon this weekend are how the Tories are going to play it over the next 10 days, banging on about how terrorist attacks are more likely under Labour is going to be a bit of a risk. Firstly, because cutting the police by 20,000 over the last seven years is hardly the actions of a government "serious" about security, second it just draws attention to Labour's manifesto pledge for more coppers and extra help for the spooks - points on which the Tory manifesto is silent, and third it's downright distasteful - to use the murder of 22 people for electioneering while there isn't a palpable national panic about terror attacks is risky bordering on reckless as far as Tory chances go.

There is also the game we've seen the Tories play time after time. It's called 'project your weakness and watch us get away with it'. Wibbly-wobblyness is a characteristic of Jeremy Corbyn, so Rudd will declare as she stands in for her frit leader at Wednesday evening's debate. Uncosted pledges and a burgeoning debt mountain are the price paid by Labour's plans, despite the provision of figures that say otherwise and the government's own spending record. It's Labour's plans that will turn Britain's streets into a terrorist playground, despite 10,000 extra police and the promise of 3,000 intelligence service recruits. And it's Labour who are going to put taxes up and cost you your home for adult social care, while the manifesto pledges to the contrary.

In short, the Tory campaign is in disarray. As it relaunches, they will be using their leverage in the media to hammer Brexit and counterpose May to Corbyn. Their problem is she has already got found out and further blunders could put the election into question, never mind the promised landslide. A month ago, the Prime Minister was unquestioningly the greatest asset the Tory party has possessed since Thatcher in the early 80s. Now she is increasingly looking like an albatross.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Does UKIP Have a Future?

Another night, another poll. The latest for The Telegraph puts the Tories on 44% and Labour on 38%. A gap of six points, which follows last week's YouGov effort reporting a five per cent gap. I'm trying not to hope, so that excitable little beastie is getting packed away as we look at what's going on at the bottom of the polling. There's still no sign of the LibDem revival, and as we've talked about them recently it's time UKIP had their turn. For poll after poll has them tanking badly. Four per cent in this ORB poll, two per cent in YouGov. To think this ex-party, this brittle husk held together by small mindedness and the ambition to keep hold of one's councillor allowances once held British politics to ransom. Times they are a-changin' and they're changin' bloody quickly.

If UKIP doesn't disintegrate following post-general election acrimony, its dirty bomb of backward, hateful politics could see it eke out a long half life on the fringes of politics. The odd council seat could tip into its radioactive soup, but for the most part the party's own decay shall keep it contained. Harmless if handled properly, at least until such a time when powerful forces need a faux anti-establishment outfit for their establishment interests. Broken as the party is (and never forget who smoked them), shedding votes, members disappearing, it does still have a little room for manoeuvre. Parties may well be aspects of classes and class interests, but they still have agency, and it is within UKIP's gift to remain half-way relevant.

Understanding this requires a very brief lesson in recent history. At the European elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009 UKIP slowly built up a base of voters as the preferred middle finger to mainstream politics. It guaranteed air time here and there, but they were not regarded with the same degree of seriousness afforded the less influential but even more repugnant British National Party. They were a nuisance, particularly to those in mainstream parties wanting to get to Brussels. And that way they could have stayed, were it not for Dave's uncharacteristic stand over a matter of principle: equal marriage. The blue rinsed bigots, the turnip taliban, and those who get excitable (if not excited) about what other people get up to in their bedrooms decamped from the Tory party en masse. Constituency chairs, Association board members, councillors, the yellowing grass roots were all outraged by Dave's concession to 21st century life. UKIP with its strident anti-Europeanism, little England sensibilities, its free market fundamentalism and, under Nigel Farage, its "libertarian" opposition to equal marriage hoovered these people up as members and supporters. It was this more than anything else that catapulted UKIP into the big leagues, it was a crisis in the Tory party that gave the UKIP project legs.

As we know, Dave completely and disastrously misread the danger to his own electoral coalition. Rather than fight them politically, he conceded ground on the EU referendum and immigration to try and lock them out from the right. And, well, here we are. However, while UKIP rode high and bagged themselves a couple of Tory MPs, from the standpoint of their own viability they made a critical mistake. In the local elections following the equal marriage crisis, in 2013, the year UKIP went big, they gained 139 councillors. In 2014, they went up 163 and won the European elections. And in 2015 they gained another 176 local authority seats. These gains came disproportionately from the Tories and yet, part connivance, part stupidity - I can't decide which - UKIP was said to pose Labour an existential crisis - a position they were happy to talk up. Lazy London commentators lapped it up too. Nigel Farage was the authentic voice of the non-metropolitan British working class (which they always identify with middle-aged-to-elderly white men). And while they were an irritant, they did not endanger Labour. For example, in the 2016 local elections, Labour was defending the 2012 high watermark established under Ed Miliband, with poor poll ratings and months of public infighting, the kippers netted just 25 while Labour suffered a net loss of 11. Despite the hype, Labour support was more resistant and proved so time and again.

Every new (or renewed) political party has to build a base around a stable(ish) set of interests if it's to enjoy a long shelf life. UKIP's error was believing its own hype. Had it gone harder on the Tories after 2013, it is reasonable to assume it would have been more stable and better placed to resist the exodus back. Last year they had the chance to change course, but instead plumped for the empty-headed Paul Nuttall, a man lacking thought beyond that morning's Daily Mail headline. He, his dimwitted followers, and not a few arms-length cheerleaders thought a Scouse accent would be enough to see Labour's northern strongholds fall to a purple surge. If only someone had argued this was bollocks all along. If UKIP wants to bump along the bottom of the polls and fall behind the Greens, then they should carry on with the "Labour first" strategy.

That said, humiliation in Stoke followed by an organisational and vote collapse, it appears that Nuttall has finally twigged, that it might be an idea to go for the voters that made the party and Farage a household name. He's standing in Boston and Skegness, a Tory-held seat in which UKIP finished a very strong second in 2015. It is also the Brexit capital of Britain. Yes, even more so than the Potteries. At the UKIP manifesto launch, apart from the ritual opportunistic sop to the NHS, this was "blukip", not "red UKIP": of holding the government to account on any Brexit backslides, of stressing one-in-one-out immigration over Theresa May's aspirational "tens of thousands" figures, and calling for a splendid isolationist foreign policy to keep Britain terrorism-free. Stuff plenty of hard right Tory voters would find attractive. The problem for UKIP is it might be too little too late, and the window of opportunity has slammed shut with them on the wrong side.

Friday 26 May 2017

Local Council By-Elections May 2017

Here's what's been happening in the local authority by-election scene this last month.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- May 16






* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There was one Independent clash
**** Others this month consisted of WEP (40), Yorks First (46), Elvis Bus Pass (51), National Bocialist (0), Residents 4 Uttlesford (623), English Democrats (188), TUSC (37, 25, 27, 83), Liberal Party (64), St Neots Ind Group (854), Monster Raving Loony (33), and Health Concern (506)

Overall, 211,356 votes were cast over 113 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 24 council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with April's results, see here.

Now this is interesting. The Tories hold a massive lead while Labour languish well behind, and a strong showing from the Liberal Democrats too. Compare these results with the projected vote share from the local elections held in early May: 38%, Labour 27%, LibDems 18%, UKIP 5%. They fair resemble them, don't they? And I think it would have been a reasonable prediction back then to have suggested Labour was in for a drubbing. However, as we've learned these last two years politics moves, and it moves fast. There was an about turn in the polls suggesting something of a Labour recovery anyway, but the unforced dementia tax debacle, subsequent collapse of the Tory campaign and the fall out from the Manchester attacks has put a ramjet under Labour and the polls are closing. In approximately a month we've gone from no-hopers to in with a shout of winning - incredible.

Two weekends left and the dynamism is with Labour. This weekend on the doors is going to be very interesting.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Guido Versus Skwawkbox

In the red corner is Skwawkbox, the pro-Corbyn site that has carved out a market for itself providing the inside track from among the Corbynist left in the Labour Party. And in the black corner of deepest reaction lives Guido, the establishment's "anti-establishment" site and their preferred go-to for Westminster gossip. Bearing in mind the lies and smears Paul Staines and retinue have indulged and boosted over the years, they're the last ones to cast aspersions on other sites. But cast them they have.

It goes something like this. Skwawkbox is read by some people in Corbyn's team, and there is the suggestion it may benefit from leaks from this quarter. Therefore, because site proprietor Steve has "blamed" Theresa May for the Manchester bombing, it follows that Labour's leadership must believe it too. There you go, a criticism so sharp you can dice granite with it. Naturally, Skwawkbox is happy with the coverage. Extra audience is extra audience, after all.

Could this be just a hastily-concocted "exposé" while Alex Wickham had nothing better to do than mash the morning's tea? Yes, it's what they do. But it also means granting Skwawkbox et al some grudging recognition. As examples of the latest wave of blogging, Skwawkbox, along with The Canary (also getting its own Guido sting today), Another Angry Voice, Evolve Politics, and people who've proven adept at working social media like @Rachael_Swindon, they have carved out a large audience and following many times bigger than most established lefties. I have my issues with these sites, but they haven't so much as found a niche but blown it open. They do play a valuable role in mobilising people online and, increasingly, encouraging them to get involved in "real life" politics too. Take Another Angry Voice, for instance: a quarter of million likes on Facebook equals a mass audience for everything shared to that page (if you haven't already liked All That Is Solid by the way, now's your chance ...).

And here's a problem for Guido. Starting out as a Tory gossip site back when blogging was the new rock 'n' roll, it quickly established itself as the go-to for leaks across the political spectrum. They only ever and continue to publish stuff that serves their political agenda, but that hasn't stopped some Labour Westminster people from spilling their guts, even if it damages the party and the movement. However, as Corbynism has completely upset the balance of establishment politics and right wingers are peeling away from the PLP or seeking careers outside the lobby/Portcullis cafe axis, the old sources are drying up. Skwawkbox represents a left alternative to Guido and therefore a possible competitor. Because of the friendly relations between it, Corbyn's team (allegedly), and increasing numbers of Labour MPs, how long will it be before Guido goes back to just being an outlet for Tory Party tittle tattle? That ultimately means lower revenues and decreasing relevance among a press pack where they're already pretty reviled.

Guido may hate Skwawkbox because the latter is animated by socialist values. But I'll bet they hate them even more because of the threat it poses their standing and cash flow.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Police Numbers Since 2010

Police numbers are falling. In England and Wales between March 2015 and March 2016 (the most recent government figures), "frontline" positions shrank from 110,853 to 106,411. Recruitment was down and the number of dismissals and resignations were up, continuing a five-year trend.

It has also been widely acknowledged, not least by the Prime Minister herself, that her decision to deploy troops to guard key public buildings today frees up some armed police to do policing. Of course, the optics of looking very serious by calling in the military has absolutely nothing to do with a certain date in the diary, especially after Conservative campaign strategy has collapsed. It also helps cover the fact that the numbers of coppers have slid since her "team" took power with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, at least for those folks who look at politics askance.

As campaigning starts returning to normal after Monday night's outrage, the Tories and their media friends will probably throw propriety aside and scaremonger. Threat and the threat of threat is what they do and how they won last time. They don't really need to explicitly say it, though. The mood among some is bound to be unsettled. As @IanPMcLaughlin put it, "I don't feel particularly reassured by seeing several heavily armed officers today. I feel like I'm being reminded to be fearful."

The police have repeatedly called for intelligence and counter-terrorism to be properly financed, and these were pleas that fell on Theresa May's tin ear. While there is no guarantee any amount of security can stop a suicide bomber, more resources makes the uncovering and thwarting of plots more likely. Here below then are two charts for England and Wales that show how policing numbers have fallen since 2010 in context. The first are the government's figures looking at absolute numbers. The second, by Matt Ashby from Notts Trent University looks at the numbers of police per 100,000 of the general population. On this metric the cuts are even starker. As the number of Britons grow, forces are having to do more with less.

Please feel free to share far and wide on social media.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

The Political Economy of the Moral Lobotomy

It's a truism that the worst in humanity brings out the best in humanity. Yet amid the solidarity and support shown folks caught up in last night's suicide attack in Manchester, there were those for whom another concern came to mind: themselves. It takes a real decency bypass to think about how the murder of 22 people can raise one's profile, or score petty points, but the laws of probability indicates such people are bound to exist. A coincidence then that exhibitors of amoral psychopathy are clustered in our leading news media organisations?

Out front was, of course, the execrable Katie Hopkins who, for the sake of a higher profile and several hours as a trending topic, called for a "final solution" to Islamist-inspired terror. Yes, that's right, the language of genocide is fine and dandy for a few extra retweets. Paul Waugh of HuffPo got into the soulless spirit of things by using the occasion to imply Jeremy Corbyn was soft on terrorism. Not to be outdone, and in full knowledge of what had taken place, The Sun ran this front page penned by a former Special Branch plant in the IRA, while The Mail went to print with this cartoon. Then we have sundry trolls circulating fake news.

If this was a one off, we could put it down to individual turpitude. Unfortunately, it happens time and again. Any tragedy, any awfulness, there are commentators and "celebrities" eager to pile in. There are trolls looking to shock, poltroons sharing bullshit stories, and the vacuous scoring points no one's keeping track of. Unlocking what's going on requires something, and that would be understanding the political economy of the moral lobotomy.

Naturally, Hopkins is the queen of the scene, but she's harvesting what was long-cultivated by the likes of Melanie Phillips. Or, to be more accurate, benefiting from a media business model based entirely around trolling. As papers lose physical sales and have moved operations online, scraping profit revolves around selling ad space, and that demands large audiences. The Daily Mail, as a case in point, runs creepy celebrity stories because there's a huge international appetite for tittle-tattle and ogling celebrity bodies. Trolling with racism and the usual bigotry has the same effect - it cottoned on long before most that outraging left wing and liberal audiences who would never buy their paper could nevertheless drive page views. The Sun, was a late comer to running a free "news" website, now try and get the audience in to sell them services. Advertising, after all, is an unstable business - websites dependent on it for sole income are taking a risk.

The logical extension of trolling-for-business is adapting it as a strategy for personal media branding. It doesn't turn on advertising in this case, but the attracting of attention to remain relevant. Again, Hopkins is the master, even if it has led to occasional brushes with the law. And her notoriety gives her gigs. She'd be long forgotten as a former Apprentice contestant if it wasn't for a sustained and cynical outburst of calibrated bigotry. And what it required was a surgical removal of her moral centre and her continual parading of the fact. This logic then is abroad. And so Paul Waugh sacrificed what was appropriate for a smidgen of notoriety. The Sun and The Mail were banking on a surge of concern in terrorism for their hatchet jobs in their hope to reverse the slide toward Labour in the polls.

And the bottom feeders who do the same? The same attention-seeking logic is at work here, even though paid-for bigoted berths in the mainstream are already rammed. Retweets and shares means attention, and can flatter a mutilated sense of self-importance. What does someone else's suffering and pain mean as long as you're being seen to matter, that you are the centre of a storm you summoned? For people crippled by a sense of everyday irrelevance which, let's face it, is the lot of the overwhelming majority of us, it's a heady brew for some. Particularly as being and being seen to be a special individual is the pinnacle to which one can aspire in Western cultures. Having a moral lobotomy as a route of getting there as good as any other.

Why this happens then is because there's an economic logic underpinning callous hot takes. And, as night follows day, economic dynamics transmute into cultural dynamics, made all the easier by the quantitative character of social media. But there is only a market for hateful fare for as long people sustain it by serving it, and here responsibility lies squarely with the media operations of the right.