Democracy

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The F word is already on the way..

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:56am in

Mhairi Black speaks for just over four minutes on why our current givernment is so dangerous – because that F word is fascism:... Read more

Andy Verity on finding the money…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 7:03am in

As Stephanie Kelton would put it – it is not an Easter egg hunt… All I would add is that, whilst Andy Verity’s comments have appeared at least twice before on Twitter (here and here, for example), it is long overdue that he comments similarly when he’s on television – which, as far as I’m... Read more

Johnson may have received Russian money for his leadership campaign

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 6:42am in

So reveals a recent New York Times article I’m not surprised – Putin must have been delighted that such a self serving Narcissist was likely to take charge of the Tory Party and hence Britain. At least Labour are asking questions – even if the UK Mainstrem media haven’t even mentioned it… Nothing remarkble about... Read more

Auctioning Off Democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

The Conservative Party’s cash-for-access culture is one of the neglected scandals of modern British politics, says Iain Overton

A Champagne bottle donated by Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden had been auctioned off (erroneously) as a "souvenir of Partygate" at a charity fundraiser, it emerged last week.

The charity that benefitted from the donated wine bottle, Hertfordshire Community Foundation (HCF), says that giving to it could not only “lower your tax bill” but will let it fund urgent concerns – such as Bishop’s Stortford Food Bank.

In 2020, HCF's chairman said that, “since 2011 there has been a 96% increase in statutory homelessness and a 165% increase in homeless households in temporary accommodation” in the county.

It is no wonder that HCF needed the Prime Minister’s signed Champagne bottle to raise money to combat food shortages and homelessness. In April, the Trussell Trust said that its network had provided more than 2.1 million emergency parcels to people, from April 2021 to March 2022 – a 14% increase compared to the same period in 2019/20 – and double the number provided in 2014/15.

But this is not the only auction scandal to beset the Conservative Party recently.

At the 2022 Conservative Spring Lunch, it has been reported that one of the items auctioned was a private tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum by the chairman of the museum’s trustees, Nicholas Coleridge. Conservative Party co-chair Ben Elliot is also a trustee.

This is concerning. The legal guidance on being a trustee is that “you must avoid putting yourself in a position where your duty to your charity conflicts with your personal interests or loyalty to any other person or body”. The Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies also states: “In your public role, you should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial. You should not... hold a particularly sensitive or high-profile role in a political party. You should abstain from all controversial political activity.” 

The V&A did not respond to questions as to whether it thinks that political gifts associated with the museum, touted by its trustees, was in line with its rules of governorship.

Networks of Power

Perhaps the deeper issue here does not lie at the door of the V&A or HCF, but rather at the long – and controversial – history of auctioneering within the Conservative Party.

It is a recent history filled with accusations of cash-for-access, funding by Russian oligarchs, and the wealth of arms dealers.

In 2021, a Winter Ball auction offered an hour’s access with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sold for £35,000; karaoke with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss went for £22,000; and dinner with Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove for £25,000. The event took place moments before Conservative MPs left to vote on the Government’s controversial £86,000 blanket cap on social care costs.

The same year, the Conservative Party auctioned off dinner dates with senior Cabinet members for £4,000. The Business Leaders’ Dinner, which took place in Manchester during the Conservative Party Conference, was promoted in an email where, for a donation, you could “place your preference of senior minister to host your table”.

In addition, this newspaper has revealed that Ann R Said – also known as Rosemary Said – gave the Conservative Party £45,000 in the form of an auction prize. She is married to Wafic Said, who brokered a multi-billion-pound arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the UK in the mid-1980s.

In 2020, the Conservative Black and White Ball – for which the auction is the main event – was partly organised by a businessman banned from City trading. Jay Rutland, whose father-in-law is Bernie Ecclestone, had been banned from trading in the City of London in 2012 over “market abuse”. The Financial Services Authority ruled that Rutland was not a “fit and proper person” with a lack of “honesty and integrity”.

In 2015, Conservative donor, James Lupton, reportedly donated a week-long trip for 24 people to his £56 million La Fortaleza estate on the Bay of Pollenca in Majorca. Lupton was later to be made a peer of the realm, which was fortunate for David Cameron as he was later to successfully lobby Lupton – the director of Lloyds Banking Group – to reverse the bank’s decision to withdraw support from Greensill Capital.

In 2014, Lubov Chernukhin – then wife to Vladimir Chernukhin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance ministers – paid £160,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who was Prime Minister at the time. The current Prime Minister later defended the match: Johnson denounced the “miasma of suspicion” on “all rich Russians in London”.

Lubov Chernukhin was later found to have been listed in 2006 as a director of a company secretly owned by a Russian oligarch close to Putin. She says she “does not recall consenting in writing” to being a director of Suleiman Kerimov’s firm.

She has given more than £2.1 million to the Conservatives, making her the largest female donor in recent political history. The Sunday Times recently revealed her to be one of several donors to have been granted access to Downing Street via a secret ‘advisory board’ – a little known collective of wealthy Conservative patrons granted exclusive access to power. 

The Conservative Party has for some time run a separate ‘Leaders’ Group’ dining society that gives elite donors exclusive access to party grandees.

It goes on.

In 2013, the £28,000 offered for a Tory-auctioned portrait of Margaret Thatcher, bid by a company called Henley Concierge, was deemed by the Electoral Commission to be impermissible, as the company was ‘non-trading’. The money was given back. The ultimate owner of that company, Andrei Borodin, was the former president of the Bank of Moscow.

At the same event, a bottle of champagne signed by Margaret Thatcher was also auctioned off for £45,000 in a room of bankers, businesspeople and lobbyists jointly worth more than £11 billion.

Moreover, the politics of auctioneering has led to a souring of relationships when promises go unfulfilled.

One donor, Telecoms businessman Mohamed Amersi, is reportedly demanding £150,000 back after not being given the auction prizes that he bought – including a breakfast with Boris Johnson, a magic show by former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, and a Japanese meal with former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Strangely, Amersi dived back into the Conservative fray last week, bidding on and winning a dinner for nine in a Green Park mansion with “four guests from the Westminster political scene” and a commemorative plate and a bottle of whisky signed by Margaret Thatcher, all for a total of £16,000. 

Conservative Party HQ is said to be furious – but perhaps not as furious as the wider electorate should be.

If the Conservative Party auction items were – as some have been – simply a hoodie signed by Sunak or diaries signed by Edwina Currie, this perhaps would have been palatable. Even a ride in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Bentley is distanced, to a degree, from any accusation of money in exchange for access or influence.

But these scandals – and the sums of money involved – show a Conservative Party that has either little concern for the perception of cash-for-access or a marked disregard for due process or transparency.

Boris Johnson will almost certainly feel that his giving a bottle of Champagne for a charity that funds food banks is an act of altruism on his part – but it displays a blindness for those who rely on them and who will never be able to afford the sort of influence that is bought by Conservative patrons.

And, in this regard, that is the thing missing at these black-tie event auction wars – democratic accountability and, ultimately, decency.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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British Politics is Now Awash with Money and Social Media – Do We Care?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 8:08pm in

Former Labour MP Ian Lucas explores how digital campaigning and Big Tech has driven a coach and horses through the UK’s historically robust electoral rules

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This month’s local elections revealed mixed results. Despite losing almost 500 seats, with a backdrop of repeated scandals in Downing Street, the Conservatives maintained residual support sufficient to keep Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Though opposition parties made progress, it was by no means sufficient to ensure that the Conservatives will lose the next general election. What explains the Tory resilience?

To me, a spectre is haunting British politics – the spectre of money. 

Unseen and undiscussed, money has, in the past decade, driven our politics down a new path – undiscovered even by most who work in politics. I was one of them. 

For 18 years, I was a Labour MP, a minister, an opposition spokesman and, from 2015, a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee which a landmark report on disinformation and fake news – uncovering the new, dark world of social media, its political uses and the money involved. It was only in that final role that the transformation of our politics in the last decade was, piece by piece, revealed to me.

Of course, money has always played a role. The Conservatives have always had more money than other parties but, to some extent, the impact of political spending was mitigated by rules. Our politics has, historically, been governed by strict rules – some of the most important of them related to money.

During meetings with US politicians over the years, I learned that they were astonished by how little UK politicians spent on elections. I explained to them that we had spending limits within our constituencies and that, in the half a dozen elections in which I had been a parliamentary candidate, I spent, usually, about £6,000. The most I ever spent was £12,000 in the hotly contested 2017 General Election.

Those US politicians were astounded. They said they usually spent a full day a week on the telephone, asking people for political donations, and needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for TV advertising – an essential weapon in the US political campaign race. In the UK, I told them, TV political advertising was banned and this was a big reason why I, someone with working-class parents brought up in a council house without political patronage, could be a UK Member of Parliament.

I fear that those days are gone.

The rules governing elections in the UK now, effectively, no longer apply. The limits on spending that were an intrinsic part of our system are gone. Elections are now being fought in a new way. The traditional methods of canvassing – door-knocking, telephoning, leafletting – have been superseded. The most influential campaigning now takes place online. And, for the most part, online is an ungoverned space.

Campaigning on social media has huge advantages for politicians. Information on voters, their personal preferences, what motivates them and what does not, is now available from online platforms that survey voters’ internet use and use that information to target them with individualised, targeted political messaging.

While targeted political messages have always been delivered, it usually depended on information collected by political parties themselves, explicitly for that purpose or perhaps based on demographic or economic information. It was limited in the numbers of voters reached and the parties’ capacity to individualise its content.

Many social media companies now use surveillance information for targeted messaging, reaching thousands, even millions, of voters daily. They make no distinction between political and any other sort of advertising. This is entirely alien to the political tradition in the UK. We have always treated political advertising differently – that is why we made the decision decades ago to ban TV political advertising. 

Online, however, electoral law has not applied in elections since 2015.

Our historic prohibition on political advertising on TV has been bypassed by political advertising online, with filmed political adverts now used daily on social media platforms; ads that must be paid for. Basic requirements such as imprints to identify the source of messages, for instance, have also not been legally required and are only now being introduced.

Extraordinarily, there are also only very limited restrictions on elections spending, with limits only applying for what the Electoral Commission calls “the regulated period” – the specified few weeks before an election takes place. Outside of this, political spending is unlimited by law. Even within that period, there is confusion about to whom spending limits apply. Does a generic, paid for social media advert from a political party count as a local election expense?

Political campaigning online is now constant. It is delivered inside and outside of electoral periods and Boris Johnson is never happier than when he is campaigning; projecting images of a Prime Minister in a hi-viz jacket, out and about among the voters. Those are the images delivered in films and photos daily on social media platforms; individually targeted at voters chosen as receptive to them, based on their past internet use. The result of bought social media use of this kind has been an explosion of political campaign spending. And it is very clear that enormous amounts of money are now being spent on social media advertising by political candidates. 

In the period since August 2018, for example, the Conservatives have nationally donated more than £700,000 for advertising to the West Midland Midlands Conservative Mayor Andy Street, according to the Electoral Commission. Since November 2018, Street has spent more than £104,000 on Facebook advertising alone. Though not a national politician, Street is a strategically important political figure for the Conservatives, one of only two regional mayors and his 2021 re-election was hotly contested. The other Conservative regional Mayor is Teesside’s Ben Houchen who, according to Facebook, bought more than £69,000 of advertising from it in the period from November 2018.

We have limited knowledge of where the donations to individual candidates to pay for these adverts are sourced.

At the Electoral Commission, the source of donations to Andy Street is, unhelpfully, recorded as “the Conservative Party”. This is problematic when considering transparency of those in senior political roles. If we do not know the ultimate source of donations, how do we consider questions such as undue influence? In this way, it is very difficult to get to the bottom of where big donations come from and why they are made.

Spending on social media advertising is a new, significant expense which requires a new income stream for political parties.

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Recent press reports, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have highlighted Russian-linked donations to the Conservative Party.

Jane Bradley of The New York Times reported this month on a donation of $630,225 by former Conservative Party Treasurer, Ehud Sheleg. Her article states that the donation “originated in a Russian account of Mr Sheleg’s father-in-law, Sergei Kopytov, who was once a senior politician in the previous pro-Kremlin Government of Ukraine. He now owns real estate and hotel businesses in Crimea and Russia”. According to a suspicious activity alert by Barclays Bank to the UK National Crime Agency, $2.5 million was transferred from Kopytov’s bank account in Russia in January 2018. The alert reads: “Kopytov can be said with considerable certainty to have been the true source of the donation.” Sheleg’s lawyers say that the $2.5 million was a gift.

Another Conservative Party donor, Alexander Temerko – described by Catherine Belton in her book Putin’s People as “the ultimate lobbyist” – has, individually and through companies, given more than £1 million to the Conservative Party since 2012. Temerko has been very active in making donations to north-east England Tory MPs but is not recorded as having made donations to Houchen’s campaign. 

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now spending more on social media advertising – they have little option if they want to effectively compete at the next general election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have signalled their intention to largely maintain the status quo by, incredibly, passing an Elections Act which largely fails to address the issues relating to online campaigning and its financing. 

The electoral spending race is working for the Conservatives. The question for opposition parties is whether this is the type of politics we want. And, if not, what will they do about it if they have the opportunity?

Ian Lucas’ book, ‘Digital Gangsters: The Inside Story of How Greed, Lies and Technology Broke Democracy’, is published by Byline Books

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Incitement of violence by far-right media networks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 8:52am in

Tags 

Democracy, race


The sickening tragedy of Buffalo yesterday -- the racist attack on a group of African-American shoppers and workers by an 18-year-old white supremacist man in body armor, carrying a military-style weapon -- is simply too much to absorb. This is indisputably an act of domestic terrorism; and yet our police and federal counter-terrorism agencies are still woefully behind in taking the threats of racist violence seriously. Where is Homeland Security when it comes to protecting African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and Jewish people against a rising tide of racist attacks? (Here is a Brookings report on the state of right-wing terrorism in America; link.) We are forced to ask ourselves, how many other "true believers" in the Great Replacement theory and other memes of white supremacy are out there, contemplating their own acts of racist violence?

But here is a question that must be confronted: how did violent white supremacy become mainstream in America? How did racist antagonism and fear-mongering become something more than shameful and marginal mutterings by fringe extremists? And more specifically, what role do Fox News and Tucker Carlson play in the shameful tragedy that took place in Buffalo this week?

The answer seems to be: a very extensive role. Carlson's advocacy of the supposed catastrophe of "the Great Replacement" has reverberated throughout this country and in other parts of the world. As the recent and rigorous New York Times study documents (link), Carlson's program is deliberate in its stoking of racial fear and hatred among its three million viewers. Here is part of the assessment offered in the Times series:

To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas. Mr. Carlson sometimes refers to “legacy Americans,” a dog-whistle term that, before he began using it on his show last fall, appeared almost exclusively in white nationalist outlets like The Daily Stormer, The New York Times found. He takes up story lines otherwise relegated to far-right or nativist websites like VDare: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has featured a string of segments about the gruesome murders of white farmers in South Africa, which Mr. Carlson suggested were part of a concerted campaign by that country’s Black-led government. Last April, Mr. Carlson set off yet another uproar, borrowing from a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement” to argue that Democrats were deliberately importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the current electorate and keep themselves in power. But a Times analysis of 1,150 episodes of his show found that it was far from the first time Mr. Carlson had done so. (link)

The alleged Buffalo assailant's manifesto seems to follow this script of "great replacement" and white supremacy very closely. The manifesto is explicit on these points (link). So the connection seems evident -- message disseminated, message received, violence committed.

Milan Obaidi, Jonas Kunst, Simon Ozer and Sasha Y. Kimel make a strong sociological argument for the connection between "great replacement" myths and racist violence in "The 'Great Replacement' conspiracy: How the perceived ousting of Whites can evoke violent extremism and Islamophobia" (link). These researchers document the role this meme has played in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim populism in European states:

In recent years, the “Great Replacement” conspiracy has not only gained prominence among right-wing extremists but has also found a foot- hold among right-wing populist political parties in Europe. For example, while evoking anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, such ideas have been espoused by the former leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjærsgaard, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and the leader of the far-right movement Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen (Alduy, 2017; Kingsley, 2019; Kjærsgaard, 2020). Various conservative intellectuals and far-right organizations have also utilized language that stokes fear about the decline of the “White race” and “White identity.” For instance, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Mark Steyn, a prominent proponent of “Eurabia” (i.e., a term coined to describe an alleged Islamization and Arabization of Europe), claimed that by the year 2025 “Europe will be 40 percent Muslim and much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century” (Steyn quoted in Carr, 2006; see also Steyn, 2005). Meanwhile, anti-Muslim organizations such as the German PEGIDA movement and the European White-nativist movement Generation Identity (GI) have espoused similar views. For example, GI—one of Europe’s fastest growing far-right movements that advocates for an ethnically and culturally homogenous Europe—portrays immigrants as invaders while playing a prominent role in promoting, popularizing, and disseminating the “Great Replacement” conspiracy (Cox & Meisel, 2018; Feder & Maplestone, 2019). (link)

Based on their survey-based study, they find that there is a causal connection between perceived replacement and willingness to act violently against members of the other group.

Perceived replacement of the autochthonous population was positively correlated with willingness to violently persecute Muslims, violent intentions, Islamophobia, as well as symbolic and realistic threat perceptions (see Table 1). Moreover, both types of threats were related to Muslim persecution and Islamophobia. However, only symbolic threat was associated with violent intentions. (link)

Now--back to America. Tucker Carlson now finds it expedient to use the "Great Replacement" meme to crystallize the fears and antagonisms of his followers -- again, a finding well documented in the New York Times series cited above. It seems all too obvious that this is a potent causal factor in the rise of activist white supremacist individuals and organizations. And, coincidentally, our country is witnessing a horrifying rise in violent attacks on people of color.    

What are some of the means available to those who care about democracy and equality for combatting this resurgent white supremacy and the violence it so recklessly engenders? Electing politicians who demonstrate their commitment to our democratic values is one response, but not a very rapid or targeted cure.

Is there another possibility deriving from civil liability? Is it possible to make use of civil lawsuits against the purveyors of false and hateful theories that inspire other individuals to commit acts of violence? In the Lawfare blog Alexander Vindman raises the possibility of using civil lawsuits to prevent the harms purveyed by right-wing media and personalities, including defamation and (one might speculate) encouragement of violence (link). Consider the example of the lawsuit successfully undertaken by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1981 against United Klans of America for the murder of Michael Donald by two klansmen. Success in this lawsuit led to bankruptcy and dissolution of this branch of the Ku Klux Klan (link).

Can the victims and their survivors of the Buffalo atrocity hold Tucker Carlson and Fox News at least partially responsible for the racist murders committed on May 14? Would $1 billion be an appropriate civil damage finding for the harm done by this reckless and immoral racism on a highly influential media channel? Would Fox News then find it prudent to eliminate the racist hatred it channels on its network if it were faced with such a judgment?

And what about the advertisers who continue to provide millions in ad revenue to Fox News? Can these companies at last be brought to recognize the shame of their support for racist hate mongering, and withdraw their support? If not, should not consumers look at these companies as complicit in the rising tide of racist violence in America? Here is a call for "defunding Fox News" (link) that identifies the top advertisers on Fox: GlaxoSmithKline, Liberty Mutual, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Intuit, NortonLifeLock, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Progressive, Charles Schwab, Toyota, and Subaru. GM, P&G, Subaru -- do you really want to align yourself with racism and anti-democratic lies and the rising tide of violence that accompanies these pathologies?

(Here is a New York Times article on the background of segregation in Buffalo; link.)

When is the Conservative poverty handbook being published?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/05/2022 - 6:48pm in

The Tory MP Lee Anderson has recently opined that producing a meal for 30p a head is perfectly possible. Though clearly not for him. He supports a government who spent £37 billion to manage test and trace but somehow that wasn’t enough to make it work. So having continued to support that government in relentless... Read more

How the Russian Public Sees Events in Ukraine Today

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 10:00pm in

People who give interviews and speak about a catastrophe in Russia project something into the future, and do not describe what is happening right now. The situation is very different in different cities and even different institutions. In Saint Petersburg and Moscow, you have more freedom than, for example, in Kazan....

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The UK – seems to be run by idiots…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 10:16am in

I have just seen a ‘UK’ sticker on the back of a van. This is what the Tory government, having thought about unity – and of course it has since done its best to undermine it – thinks is better than a sticker that has long been familiar in the EU – a GB sticker.... Read more

‘They’re all the Same’: How Political Cynicism Breeds Extremism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 10:45pm in

A lack of faith in politics is dangerous for democracy, argues Sian Norris, as it paves the way for 'strongmen' to take authoritarian control

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“They’re all the same”, is the most common moan about politicians. “They all lie. They’re all in it for themselves. They don’t care about people like me”.

Such a complaint has become particularly potent in the twin fallout of 'partygate' and 'beergate'. There is clear distance between the 12 events in and around Downing Street being investigated that are linked to the Prime Minister, and the allegations against Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. But the fact that both main parties are facing questions from the police has added fuel to the fire that all politicians are as bad as each other. 

The narrative that politicians are all the same – and by ‘same’ we mean equally bad, not equally good – breeds a cynicism in politics that is bad for democracy. It turns voters away from the ballot box, as they refuse to choose between a ruling and opposition party that they believe are as bad as each other. It breeds distrust in politicians so that when positive policies are announced, voters don’t truly believe politics can make a difference to their lives. 

Worse, it allows for extremist and divisive actors to thrive – after all, if the mainstream can’t be trusted, why not lend your support to those who promise to do things differently? 

Extremism flourishes where faith in democracy is broken. 

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Britain’s Divides

According to a report published earlier this year by the Carnegie UK Trust, less than half the English public (45%) feel that democracy works well in the UK and an overwhelming majority (77%) do not trust MPs. Just under three-quarters (74%) of the public do not trust that the UK Government will make decisions that will improve their lives. 

The poll was taken in the early weeks of partygate. Now, with beergate fuelling the belief that they’re “all the same”, it’s possible trust is even lower. 

Such lack of trust creates confusion. This in turn creates division and divide, which can be manipulated into a culture war. This is the breeding ground for extremism. 

As democracy has eroded in the UK, culture war issues have increasingly taken hold and the electorate has become divided along values lines – with progressives pitched against ‘small-c’ conservatives, with pro-Europeans pitched against little-Englanders, with social justice and human rights advocates pitched against those who long for a return to the natural order.  

When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law”

This is evidenced in new research from the Policy Institute at Kings College London and Ipsos UK, which found that more than half (54%) of the UK public aware of the “culture wars”. That is an increase from 46% at the end of 2020. At the same time, 36% of the UK public see the word “woke” as an insult, rising to 42% of over-55s. 

The study also found that half of the UK public feel the term “white privilege” is unhelpful when talking about race relations – double the number of people in 2020. 

This is hardly surprising. The Conservative Government has been determined to wage a culture war that can distract attention from the disastrous handling of the pandemic, and the growing stress on families caused by the rising cost of living. From reports that blamed the phrase “white privilege” on the lack of academic attainment of white working class boys, to Party Chairman Oliver Dowden telling the radical-right think tank that the term would be banned in UK schools, a Government in trouble clings to culture issues in order to create scapegoats for its failings and to stoke divisions. 

When faith in democracy crumbles, people seek refuge in the old certainties – in race, in nation, in war (even a culture one). That the UK is increasingly aware of and embroiled in a culture war over values is a consequence of both cynicism in political leaders – and the cynicism of political leaders who fill the lacuna where policies of transformation should be, with the politics of hate and division.

This, in turn, moves us towards extremism.

Strongmen Leaders

Whenever democracy is in danger, there’s often a strongman waiting in the wings. These are the authoritarian leaders who rush in on promises of simple answers, conservative solutions, and a return to the natural order. 

Crucially, the strongman leader comes to power with a promise to end corruption – to “drain the swamp” in Trump parlance – while accusing their predecessors in mainstream politics of being corrupt. For an electorate that has lost trust in its politicians, a campaign against corruption is beguiling. Voters that believe all parties are the same, that all politician are in it for themselves and not in it to support the public, have every reason to support a strongman who promises to do things differently and end corruption. 

But there’s a problem. From Putin to Orban, Trump to Bolsanara, even Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Salvini in Italy, strongmen come to power or popularity promising a new dawn... only to be corrupt themselves. 

This has two consequences. The first is to create even more disillusionment in politics – a sense that if even the man promising to end corruption is corrupt, there’s no point trusting anyone. The second is to create apathy or even forgiveness – that he probably deserves that wealth/kickback/favour (this, for a while, worked for Boris Johnson and the endless stories about backers being asked to pay for wallpaper/takeaways/nannying services). Either way, it feeds the degradation of politics and paves the way for extremism.

To understand why this happens, it’s important to understand the far-right framing of corruption. Far from being about money and Wall Street, the strongman leader sees corruption as being about who takes up space and who holds power. 

When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law” or a “usurpation of the natural order”, according to writer Jason Stanley. He explains in his book How Fascism Works how “when women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of a democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption”.

Little wonder then, that where there are authoritarian, strongmen leaders, there is often a flourishing anti-gender movement, along with anti-women, anti-LGBTIQ policies. According to research by Women’s Link Worldwide, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ organisations and policies find success in countries with weak democracies and strongmen leadership. As such, natalist efforts, anti-abortion bills, anti-LGBTIQ and anti-RSE policies are the canary in the coalmine for a democracy that is sliding into extremism. 

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