Author Archive

My review of Roger Eatwell & Matthew Goodwin’s National Populism has just been just published on politics.co.uk. How the authors aim to colonise the terminology, deny the racism of right-wing populism, redefine racism itself, radically distort concern over immigration, and pretend populism is coming from the voters rather than the unscrupulous political entrepreneurs – like Trump and Bolsonaro who are capturing the ‘mainstream’ right as well as figures like Farage.

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My academic focus has switched from genocide to racism in contemporary politics. In this article just published on openDemocracy, based on research currently under review for academic publication, I discuss the weaponisation of immigration and race by Vote Leave in 2016 in the light of its Facebook ads, recently released.

 

(Vote Leave Facebook ad, fair use)

Boris Johnson’s weaponisation of the burqa came on the heels of new revelations about the propaganda strategy of the Vote Leave campaign which he fronted in the 2016 referendum. I argued here at the time that Vote Leave’s official television advertisement, the most high-profile item of Leave propaganda, was a skillful racist amalgam.

During the referendum, we knew that Vote Leave was sending a huge number of targeted social media messages. Its strategist Dominic Cummings now says there were 1.5 billion, with a large number directed at just 7 million voters in the final days of the campaign, but these were under the radar for pro-EU observers in 2016.

However, following the twin scandals around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, and Vote Leave’s breaches of election spending laws, Facebook supplied Vote Leave’s advertisements to Westminster’s Media, Culture and Sport committee. It is now possible to see that the TV ad was the centrepiece of a vast multimedia effort centred on a nuanced orchestration of racism to swing the Brexit vote.

How racism in the Leave campaign has been misunderstood

This third scandal is possibly the most serious of all for British democracy, yet to appreciate it we must revise our ideas on the role of racism in Brexit. During and after the referendum, pro-EU politicians and commentators largely identified racism with the UKIP-linked Leave.EU, which was responsible for what became an emblematic moment, the unveiling by Nigel Farage – just after the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox – of the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster which used a photograph of Syrian refugees to represent migration into Britain. Vote Leave distanced itself from the poster: the co-convenor of its campaign committee, Michael Gove (then as now a cabinet minister), said that he ‘shuddered’ when he saw it.

Moreover, Leave.EU attacked Vote Leave for giving insufficient priority to immigration and critics have largely taken their attacks at face value, accepting the idea that Leave.EU was racist, Vote Leave not. When a wave of physical and verbal aggression erupted, political blame focused on the secondary campaign fronted by Farage and funded by Arron Banks. Indeed Tim Shipman recounts that Leave.EU advertisements were ‘deliberately sent to supporters of the British National Party and Britain First’, the racist group to which Thomas Mair, Cox’s murderer, was linked because he cried ‘Britain first’ as he killed her (All Out War, p.408).

However the focus on Leave.EU, the extreme right and hate crimes misses the role of the campaign which was officially recognised by the Electoral Commission and led by Conservative ministers and Labour MPs: Vote Leave. In the biggest TV debate on 20 June 2016, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, accused Vote Leave leaders of ‘Project Hate’, a rare calling-out of their campaign at the time. We can now see how right he was.

How Vote Leave’s TV and Facebook propaganda combined

By then Vote Leave had shown its TV election broadcast repeatedly on different channels over four weeks, starting on 23 May. Beginning with lurid graphics representing the immigration threat of Turkey and Balkan countries joining the EU and the £350 million the UK allegedly paid the EU each week, it climaxed with split screen film showing (staying within the EU) a surly foreign man elbowing a tearful elderly white woman out of the queue in an Accident and Emergency department, while (leaving the EU) the woman is contentedly treated without having to wait. This film was on YouTube as recently as the spring of this year, but appears to have been removed since the scandals of the Vote Leave campaign were exposed. The importance of this broadcast is that it was shown, as law required, on all terrestrial public channels and therefore accessible to almost all the electorate, including older voters, a major target audience many of whom did not use social media.

(A still from Vote Leave’s TV ad. Fair use.)

The new information published by the DMCS committee shows how Facebook propaganda complemented this broadcast. While Vote Leave’s hundreds of Facebook advertisements included a wide range of issues, the largest cluster focused on immigration, Turkey and the linked £350 million claim, and widely re-used graphics and images from the broadcast in material posted to targeted subsets of users. Images of Johnson (the only featured politician) were used with apparently liberal, democratic slogans such as ‘I’m pro-immigration, but above all I’m pro controlled immigration. In the EU the system has spun out of control. Join Me, Vote Leave’, and ‘Immigration must be controlled by those who the public elected and not the EU! On the 23 June they will get their chance to take back control.’

However alongside these were lurid advertisements like: ‘5.23 MILLION MORE IMMIGRANTS ARE MOVING TO THE UK! GOOD NEWS???’ (the viewer was invited to press a ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ button, and presumably ‘no’ respondents were targeted with further advertisements reprising the theme in one of many variations now revealed) and ‘Reason No. 8’ to leave the EU, ‘‘To stop convicted criminals from countries like Latvia and Romania coming to the UK’ (the button was: ‘YES, I VOTE LEAVE’).

In this differentiated propaganda, on the one hand immigration was presented as an example of ‘taking back control’ with the abstract theme of excessive numbers of migrants, and on the other as the threat of large numbers of new migrants arriving from undesirable places like Turkey and the equally distant, barely known Balkan states of Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Each of these countries featured separately in mutually reinforcing advertisements, which may well have been posted sequentially to susceptible Facebook users.

‘Abstract stuff’ and emotive propaganda

The combination of an emphasis on numbers with more emotive, targeted tropes is not new. In his notorious 1968 speech, Enoch Powell asserted: ‘numbers are of the essence: the significance and consequences of an alien element introduced into a country or population are profoundly different according to whether that element is 1 per cent or 10 per cent.’ Powell always claimed to be ignorant of the term ‘race’, and in remarks around the same time which seem prophetic of contemporary Europhobic concerns, even suggested around the same time that clusters of Italians or Germans in British cities would constitute the same sort of ‘alien’ presence as large numbers of blacks.

Nevertheless, just as Vote Leave named Turks, Albanians and others, Powell made it very clear that he was talking about ‘Negroes’, evoking the fate of the sole ‘white (a woman old-age pensioner)’, living in a street taken over by these ‘aliens’: ‘She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter-box. When she goes out to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.’

The key here was that Powell needed to give the ‘abstract stuff’ about numbers, as the historian Randall Hansen calls it, human form to make it the emotional stuff of effective propaganda. It is difficult not to see Vote Leave’s broadcast with its focus on the plight of a vulnerable older white woman as homage to Powell’s exposition, and curious that Johnson, having notoriously also prattled about ‘piccaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’, should now have referred to ‘letter-boxes’ in his attack on Muslim women. Whether or not they are consciously referencing Powell, they are following his playbook remarkably faithfully considering the changed circumstances.

Strategic role of immigration in Vote Leave’s campaign

More important than these historical parallels is the incontrovertible evidence that Vote Leave attached as much strategic importance to immigration politics as Leave.EU. Shipman demonstrates, using comprehensive interviews with leading participants, that the differences between the campaigns concerned strategy and timing rather than the principle of weaponising immigration. He shows that Cummings always understood that Leave could not win without making immigration a crucial plank, and that his aim was to establish Vote Leave’s respectable credentials by focusing on sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ before the official campaign, and then to introduce immigration in that final month as the killer argument which would concretise ‘control’ and widen Leave’s appeal.

Cummings himself writes: ‘Would we have won without immigration? No’, and confirms that the key argument was: ‘Vote Leave to take back control of immigration policy. If we stay there will be more new countries like Turkey joining and you won’t get a vote. Cameron says he wants to “pave the road” from Turkey to here. That’s dangerous. If we leave we can have democratic control and a system like Australia’s. It’s safer to take back control.’ He adds, ‘It is true that we did not do much on immigration before the 10 week official campaign. That is because … we did not need to. It was far more important to plant other seeds and recruit support that would have been put off if we had focused early on immigration. Immigration was a baseball bat that just needed picking up at the right time and in the right way.’

However this ‘stagist’ characterisation is only half the story. Vote Leave also had in effect a two-level campaign, in which often lurid propaganda, much of it undercover, ran alongside the campaign figureheads’ abstract arguments about sovereignty and global Britain in their televised speeches for respectable audiences, and too much media coverage took the latter as representative. Yet with Vote Leave’s mainstream credentials and more nuanced range of material, its emotive propaganda is likely to have had a wider influence on voters than Leave.EU’s.

The allegation of racism

As the debate on antisemitism has emphasised, racism does not necessarily involve expressing explicit hostility to specific groups or a desire to harm them. Often it is implicit in the imagery used and the ‘smell’ of a certain kind of propaganda, as Jewish groups sometimes put it. Moreover while some people are racists, in an existential sense, today’s politicians are more usually involved in exploiting (or condoning) policies, propaganda and images which create hostility towards groups in society for their electoral purposes. The British Social Attitudes survey shows a stubborn persistence of racial prejudice in about a quarter of the population, a sizeable reservoir of support for any campaign which is tempted. The Tories, advised by Lynton Crosby, had already dabbled with dog-whistle politics in their ill-fated London Mayoral campaign earlier in 2016.

Vote Leave’s leaders were doubtless not personally hostile to Turks or Albanians, let alone Europeans as a whole. Nor will they have wished to cause hate crimes, which in any case would have rebounded on their campaign (as they feared had happened when Jo Cox was murdered). Their promise that EU citizens’ rights would be unilaterally guaranteed might even have been honestly intended, although in that case one would have expected more protests when Theresa May unceremoniously ditched it (neither Johnson and other Leave cabinet ministers in her government, nor Vote Leave’s co-convenors, Gove and the Labour MP Gisela Stuart, stood up for their campaign’s commitment when the matter was voted on in Parliament).

The decision to attack mostly hypothetical migrants rather than existing residents from EU states (except in material like the Romanian/Latvian criminals ad) showed what Vote Leave was trying to achieve. It fed the trope of excessive numbers without directly targeting people in UK society, which respectable Leave voters might have been uncomfortable with; it also minimised the danger of a powerful backlash from EU citizens and Remain. It was a neat way of conjuring an imaginary threat of a massive new wave of immigration which would play into fears which had been fanned over the years by the tabloids, Migration Watch, the Tory right and UKIP.

However this was not just about numbers. The image of the tearful old woman, which could be picked up even with the sound off, was more powerful than any figures. The focus on Turkey and the Balkan countries played into racist stereotypes: the otherness of people from distant, poor (and in Turkey’s case) Muslim-majority countries hardly needed labouring. It implied hostility towards Turks and Albanians in the UK, who had already experienced racism. It also implied hostility towards more than three million EU citizens by creating a threat to their residence rights and exposing them to the ‘hostile environment’ which May had created for migrant.

When Brexit led, predictably, to a large spike in racist abuse and violence against Europeans and ethnic minorities, the leaders of Vote Leave as well as Leave.EU must have had a pretty good idea of where it came from. Yet as they survey the mess Brexit is making of our country, it seems the lesson they are learning is: more of the same. Johnson’s doubling down showed that his offensive comments on burqas were no casual mistake, and the abuse faced by ordinary Muslim women was priced into the tactic. We must fear that there is more to come.

anatomy-of-a-genocide-9781451684537_lgI have just finished a draft review – the final edited version will appear in Antisemitism Studies in due course.

Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. By Omer Bartov. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. 399 pages. $30.00 (cloth).

Genocide is generally conceived of as violence by centralised perpetrators, usually states and regimes, towards whole population groups. In the last two decades, however, there has been more emphasis on the typical complexity of perpetrator forces, including the roles of ancillary states, paramilitaries and even civilians. Few, however, have looked unremittingly at genocide from the bottom up, focusing on a particular locality, and local studies have mostly not made large contributions to our general understanding. An obvious exception is Jan Gross’ Neighbors, whose intellectual and political effects are still being felt in Poland almost two decades after publication. Omer Bartov’s new book bears comparison with that striking pioneer: like Gross, Bartov examines a small town in Eastern Europe which changed hands between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Second World War and where elements of the local population played key roles in murdering the Jews. Yet there the similarities end: where Gross’s short volume on Jedwabne (in the north-east of today’s Poland) told a simple and compelling tale of Polish civilians’ do-it-yourself genocide, the key to Bartov’s longer book on Buczacz (now in western Ukraine and called Buchach) is the complexity of perpetration, victimhood and survival. Elements of Gross’s story, above all the mass murder of the local Jews and the participation of some local gentiles, are still central to Bartov’s, but the build-up to, process and aftermath of these events are different and indeed more typical: in Buczacz the Germans were the principal killers. Above all, Bartov gives us a extremely rich account, centering on relations between Jews, Poles and Ruthenians (today regarded as Ukrainians), conflicting Polish and Ukrainian nationalisms, and the policies of successive Soviet and Nazi invaders.

Bartov’s mother came from Buczacz, in what was then known as Galicia, a borderland region which has been part of several different states. He wrote more generally about the elimination of Jewish culture in the area since the world war in his moving Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (Princeton University Press, 2007), whose aim was ‘of course, not to say that Ukrainians have nothing to mourn but rather to point out that they feel obliged to exclude from that mourning the fate of Jews (and Poles) who were murdered in their midst.’ (67) The Polish inhabitants of Galicia were, as that statement suggested, somewhat parenthetical to that book but in Anatomy of a Genocide they as well as the Ukrainians are very much in the frame, in diverse ways. Bartov tells us that in the first half of the twentieth century Buczacz was a town of several thousand people, around half of them Jews, the remainder Poles and Ruthenians. Although Galicia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire from the late eighteenth century until the First World War, Poles had been the dominant Christian group since the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century, and still predominated in Buczacz and neighbouring towns as well as among larger landowners, although the peasants were mainly Ruthenians. Bartov shows how the interwar history was framed first by how the First World War struggle between the Russian and Austrian empires radicalized the local nationalisms: as Ukrainian nationalists took over the town in 1918, ‘People who had been colleagues and acquaintances for many years suddenly “recognized” their essential difference; they no longer shared the same community, moral values, culture or language.’ (67) Yet Bartov judges that at that point, ‘just as it was often inconceivable that Jews could ever become part of either national group in Galicia, it was also still difficult to draw clear distinctions between Poles and Ukrainians.’ (67-68) As Polish forces pushed out the Ukrainian nationalists and were displaced in their turn, before a final Polish conquest, successive waves of violence included Polish military pogroms against the Jews. As Galicia became part of independent Poland, the autonomous regime which the League of Nations envisaged for this multiethnic region never materialised, and the attempts of the Polish state and local Polish notables to Polonise the region stimulated a ‘new, radical, and increasingly violent nationalist organization’ (77) among Ukrainians. Some of the squeezed Jewish population responded with socialist and later communist attachments and many with their own Zionist nationalism, ‘asserting the need to uproot the newly proclaimed nation from the foreign soil it had inhabited for centuries in order to recolonize a mythical and yet already populated ancestral homeland.’ (84)

Bartov’s closely drawn twentieth century story is led, then, by growing polarisation caused by competing nationalist movements. In a characteristic break-out passage of considerable force, he emphasises the double-edged consequences: ‘The three decades that followed the destruction and erasure of pre-1914 Galician society belonged to the nationalists and ideologues, fanatics and zealots of a new breed, more willing to shed blood than to seek compromise, more determined to assert their hegemony than to preserve coesixtence: impatient men with guns and bombs, often led by the half-educated and thirsting for a fight. But things did not start that way; before nationalism began to hate, it was also about education and enlightenment, material improvement, collective responsibility, and group identity. (25) This passage concludes, ‘The path toward violence was neither foreseen nor inevitable’, but he later suggests that ‘religion and nationalism were being fused together to produce an ideological and psychological climate ripe for widespread violence once the constraints on social order were removed or altered.’ (120) This would happen with the new world war: ‘in the grand scheme of things, the interethnic squabbles in Galicia and the hopes of Ukrainian nationalists for German help in establishing an independent state counted for little. The Reich was about to invade Poland and hand over its eastern territories, including their ethnic minorities, to the Soviets; beyond that interim phase, Hitler had far greater plans to create a German “living space” in the East, and a Ukrainian state certainly had no place there.’ (126) Hitler and Stalin would take advantage of ‘fraternal violence on a scale and of a nature that even this region had never experienced before’ to facilitate ‘their policies of deportation and genocide. But for the people on the ground this ethnic struggle took on a life of its own, related to but also independent of the larger war, shaping their conduct toward their neighbors, and determining their memories of those years long after the fighting died down and the map had been irreversibly changed.’ (126-27)

The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939 was the first trigger for change, empowering some previously suppressed Ukrainians to attack Poles: ‘The intimacy of friendships that served as a barrier to stereotypes was now transformed into an intimacy of violence that strove to eradicate personal qaulms by inflicting gratuitous pain.’ (133) Poles whose testimonies Bartov outlines in detail also saw Jews as allied to the Soviets. The new regime brutally deported over 300,000 citizens from occupied Poland to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1940-41: an estimated 60 per cent were Poles, 22 per cent Jews, 10 per cent Ukrainians and 8 per cent Belarusians. All three main groups ‘saw themselves as the main victims of the Sovet and German occupations, and each perceived the persecution of the other two groups as at least partly justified. … Each group’s conviction in the uniqueness of its own victimhood thus went hand in hand with a desire to punish those associated with its suffering; this was, in essence, the same kind of reasoning employed so successfully by the Nazis, who consistently presented themselves as victims of those they murdered.’ (153) This ‘competition for victimhood’, Bartov concludes, ‘continues to this day’ and makes its mark in distorted figures and accounts of violence.

German occupation in 1941 had predictable consequences for Buczacz’s Jews. In a Jedwabne-like moment, Ukrainian bands killed Jews and Poles as the Germans invaded, but ‘as the Germans monopolized the violence, they also systematized the killing.’ (168) As everywhere, the vast majority of local Jews, and many others brought to Buczacz from elsewhere in Galicia, were murdered, many of them in large visible operations. Bartov clearly portrays the conflicts among the agonized Jews around the roles of the Judenrat (Jewish council) and Jewish police: ‘The Germans accomplished the rapid destruction of the Jewish population by creating a local apparatus of Ukrainians and Jews who helped them organize and perpetrate mass murder and by swiftly decapitating the community so as to minimize organized resistance.’ (179) Ukrainian militia, turned into policemen by the Germans, played a key role in the massacres: many knew their victims personally. The German Security Police engaged every element of the German population in the extermination project: ‘Beyond the extraordinary bloodletting this undertaking entailed, perhaps its most scandalous aspect was the astonishing ease with which it was accomplished and the extent to which the killers, along with their spouses and children, lovrs and colleagues, friends and parents, appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region.’ (185) In small, isolated German communities, ‘joint complicity in mass murder nourished a grotesquely merry intimacy.’ (197) In a precise, detailed, photographically illustrated but morally charged narrative, drawing on many perpetrator accounts, Bartov emphasizes the ‘normalization of murder’ in the German experience of genocide. In a reprise of the ‘ordinary men’ theme of Holocaust scholarship, he notes: ‘The most striking feature of the men who murdered the Jewish community of Buczacz was the seemingly unbridgeable discrepancy between their mundane prewar and postward lives and the astonishing brutality, callousness and disdain for humanity they displayed during the occupation.’ (230)

Bartov has long advocated historians’ listening to the victims, and in his chapter ‘The Daily Life of a Genocide’ he movingly explores, with the help of rare survivor accounts, how the Jews of Buczacz tried to hide from their tormentors and negotiate the mixture of rescue and betrayal in the responses of the gentile population. ‘The most striking feature’ of these accounts, he says, is ‘the ambivalence of goodness: even those who took in Jews could at any point instruct them to leave or summon the authorities: even those who initially hoped to enrich themselves from the Jews they sheltered could be moved at a certain point to risk their own and their family’s lives without any thought of profit.’ (247) ‘Evil was less ambivalent’, he continues, but for those locals, mainly Ukrainians, who benefited, ‘the blessings of genocide were short-lived’. (266) As German rule was increasingly threatened by the Red Army’s advance, the Polish underground escalated anti-Ukrainian operations, and the radical Ukrainian nationalists attempted to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the lands of a future independent Ukraine of Poles. 30-40,000 Poles and 5,000 Ukrainians were massacred in Eastern Galicia in 1943-45, and overall (including the earlier period) possibly 100,000 Poles and 15-20,000 Ukrainians died. After Ukrainian nationalists resisted the return of Soviet rule, over 200,000 family members of insurgents were deported to the interior of the USSR, with local Poles among those carrying out these deportations and the remaining villagers benefiting from the deportees’ property. The Polish-Ukrainian conflict only ended as a result of Stalin’s border and population policies, forced on Polish Communist leaders, which led to 560,000 Poles being removed from Eastern Galicia as it became part of Soviet Ukraine (the majority of the 750,000 Poles deported from the western regions of the newly expanded USSR) and 500,000 Ukrainians deported from the reconstituted Poland. ‘Ironically, then,’ Bartov notes, ‘the old dream of Ukrainian nationalists was about to be realized by their most hated enemy: an ehtnically pure Western Ukraine created by Soviet population policies.’ (274) He concludes this exemplary study: ‘All three ethnic groups living in Buczacz and its district underwent extreme suffering, although their agony peaked at different times and often at the hands of different perpetrators, just as their propensity to collaborate with the occupiers depended on different factors and changing circumstances. And yet, at the same time and long after, each group sought to present itself as the main victim, both of the occupying power and of its neighbors.’ (289)

Bartov’s book is the anatomy of an unparallelled period of extensive, multi-authored and diversely targeted destructive violence in Buczacz and its region. The combined actions of the local nationalists and the invaders destroyed the mixed Buczacz and Galician society which existed up to 1939 as well as the Jewish and Polish communities. The question which remains for this reviewer is, how is it the anatomy of ‘a genocide’? Bartov wears the concept lightly, and also refers to ‘genocide, ethnic cleansing and population policies’, implying that only part of the extraordinary violence which he describes – whether this is only the mass murder of the Jews or also includes some killings of Poles and Ukrainians is unclear – amounted to ‘genocide’. Yet genocide has been defined not simply as mass murder but as the targeted destruction of national groups, which must surely include the attempt to forcibly remove them from a given territory. In my interpretation what Bartov shows is that genocidal aims became increasingly common to almost all the political actors, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists as well as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who organized violence to destroy ‘enemy’ populations. There are important differences between the ad hoc, intermittent, ancillary murder and terror of the locally-based militia (who mostly tried to destroy others only ‘in part’ as the Genocide Convention puts it) and the more systematic campaigns of the imperial invaders, and also between the Nazis’ extensive mass murders and the Soviets’ mass deportations. But they were all designed to eliminate unwanted elements and homogenise the population in one way or another; in this region in the 1940s, war was generally genocidal. In this sense, considering genocide as outcome as well as policy and action, there were both ‘a’ genocide in Buczacz and Galicia and specific genocides of Jews, Poles and (in some places and at some times) Ukrainians. Moreover, the destruction of the previous mixed society was completed by the victory of Stalin’s brutal programme to reorganise states and populations in an expanded Soviet empire over the more murderous programme of the Nazi Reich. It was this that prevented any return of the displaced peoples and consolidated the forgetting of the many victims which this fine book, thankfully, does much to overcome.

My review of Anton Weiss-Wendt’s book, The Soviet Union and the Gutting of the Genocide Convention, is now online here

Genocide and war (audio)

Posted: December 13, 2016 in genocide
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All 57 minutes of my recent talk ‘The Problem of Genocide (In War and Terrorism)’ at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews, can be listened to here.

I have coauthored the following article:

Goldberg, Amos; Kehoe, Thomas J.; Moses, A. Dirk; Segal, Raz; Shaw, Martin; and Wolf, Gerhard (2016) “Israel Charny’s Attack on the Journal of Genocide Research and its Authors: A Response,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal: Vol. 10: Iss. 2: 3-22. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1911-9933.10.2.1436. Available at: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/gsp/vol10/iss2/4. View article here

Abstract: Israel Charny has published an article, “Holocaust Minimization, Anti-Israel Themes, and Antisemitism: Bias at the Journal of Genocide Research” (JGR) in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism. His specific allegations are bundled together in a single sentence: “minimization of the Holocaust, delegitimization of the State of Israel, and repeat[ing] common themes of contemporary antisemitism”. We write as the authors of articles and contributors to the JGR attacked by Charny. His allegations are false and we reject them. This article shows how they are based on distortions, misquotations, and falsifications of our work.

What do anti-Tory voters do where Conservatives have a more or less complete grip on all levels of government, despite only getting a minority of the votes? Where has Labour’s abandonment of its local voters – by failing to reform the electoral system, a failure that neither Corbyn nor Smith is really concerned about – left them? My account of the Devon situation is up on openDemocracy.

The Conservative hold on power in Britain is stronger than its majority of only 17 in the 650-seat House of Commons implies. Labour, the only alternative governing party, needs to gain around 100 seats even before the impact of the newly announced boundary changes is taken into account – or else forge an agreement with the Scottish National Party which looks no more possible than in 2015. As the Labour leadership contest draws to a close, the party’s road to power, whoever wins, is extremely difficult to forsee.

The Tory elective dictatorship rests on an almost complete dominance in southern England (outside large cities and university towns), which was also the principal area of support for Brexit. In the 2015 General Election, the Tores’ targeted wipeout of the Liberal Democrats across the South West delivered their unexpected majority. South and west of Bristol there is only one non-Tory MP (Labour’s Ben Bradshaw in Exeter). Even more than in the much-discussed case of Scotland under the SNP, the South West has become a virtual one-party state.

Some outside the region have speculated that a Liberal Democrat recovery might help enable a ‘progressive alliance’ as an alternative to Theresa May’s Tories. However a recovery to pre-2015 levels would not only be insufficient to offset Labour’s deficits in Scotland as elsewhere, but it ignores the extent to which the Tories have concentrated power to make it difficult for any opposition party to change the regional balance.

The situation in the region’s largest county, Devon, shows the depth of the problem. But at the same time, it is where local activists are devising new ways of doing politics that are challenging Tory control.

A microcosm of Tory power

The Tory monopoly in Devon is even more complete than in neighbouring Cornwall and Somerset. Conservatives have overwhelming control of local government (both unitary authorities, the County Council and almost all the districts). In the urban areas, the general election results were close and Labour (Plymouth, as well as Exeter where they recently consolidated their control of the City Council) and the Lib Dems (Torbay) remain in contention. But in the rural areas and small towns, the majority of the county, Tory dominance is almost absolute at every level – barring some town and parish councils where politics is less partisan.  

Some rural areas have never had a non-Tory MP. The Tories had six of the seven non-urban Devon seats even in 2010. At least one council, East Devon, has been Tory since it was created in 1973. In semi-rural Devon, even an unlikely Lib Dem revival would make little difference. How then can things ever change?

Minority rule

It is important to understand that Conservative rule is based neither on majority support or extensive party membership. In 2015, the party gained under 45 per cent of all votes. Even in the seven non-urban seats, the 2015 increase in Tory support brought them only up to a 49 per cent average; in the urban seats they squeaked in on the same 37 per cent that gave them their national majority. Yet the non-Conservative majority are virtually unrepresented.

The Tory party is hollowed out and probably has far fewer members than Labour. The party could only take Torbay and North Devon from the Lib Dems with the aid of the notorious ‘battle bus’ activists, whose costs their Torbay agent, Alison Hernandez – like many others – failed to declare. Even after Channel 4 broke the scandal in 2016, Hernandez was narrowly elected as Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner, but refused to stand aside as she was investigated (the case was transferred to another force and is still pending).

As ever where one-party rule is so entrenched, corruption is not far away. Revelations like those in 2013, when East Devon Tory councillor Graham Brown was forced to resign after telling a journalist he could obtain planning permission in return for cash, fuel widespread cynicism about local power which make the ruling party vulnerable.

The flexibility of local Tory MPs over Brexit – ‘pro-Remain’ Neil Parish MP, Chair of the parliamentary Environment committee, quickly backed Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom in quick succession for the leadership and now describes Brexit as a ‘glorious opportunity’ – is likely to create a new constituency for opposition.

Failure of the opposition parties

The situation in which non-Tory votes largely fail to count is also because Labour and even Lib Dem leaders have failed to reform the electoral system for Westminster and councils. Tony Blair’s government never held the referendum on Proportional Representation to which its 1997 manifesto committed it. Current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has never campaigned for PR during his 33 years in Parliament, and together with his rival Owen Smith continues to fudge the issue in recent responses to the Electoral Reform Society.

Nick Clegg abandoned the Lib Dems’ longstanding committment to PR to obtain office in 2010, settling for the promise of a referendum on the weaker Alternative Vote without even securing government support for change. In the South West, the Lib Dems’ collective political suicide through the Coalition has broken the residual credibility of the first-past-the-post system.

Failing services

Because Tory dominance is so extensive, the party has largely taken voters for granted. Devon is suffering sharply from the general underfunding, Balkanisation and creeping part-privatisation of public services. The NHS trust running the flagship Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital has been forced from a healthy surplus into deep deficit. The NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, also in chronic deficit, tried to bar some patients from routine operations until obliged by public pressure to abandon its plans. Local Community Hospitals have lost beds and have been handed over to NHS Property Services, which can put up rents or, worse, sell off the sites.

Devon is a region of heavy immigration, mainly of retirees from other English regions (although with some international migrants, concentrated in its cities). As in the NHS, the gap between funding and need threatens adult social care. Child protection services are deemed inadequate. Since Tory Devon retains grammar schools, there are concerns about the effects of Theresa May’s proposed expansion of these schools on the excluded majority of children.

Phoney devolution

Devon Tories’ unaccountability is also evident in how they have embraced the half-baked, patchwork ‘devolution’ launched by George Osborne, which offers limited ‘additional’ money – while core government funding for local services is pared down or eliminated. Although Devon is a much larger and more populous county than neighbouring Cornwall which has a sole devolution deal, Devon is being forced into a merger with Somerset in a new brand, an affront to local identities, ‘Heart of the South West’.

The principal rationale for the linkage seems to be to create a larger base for the anachronistic and hyper-expensive Hinckley C nuclear project. Any benefits, if they materialise, will be overwhelmingly for the neighbouring county. The proposed devolution, with a hyper-aspirational prospectus which bears comparison to Vote Leave’s notorious offer, is being run through the Local Economic Partnership, dominated by unelected business leaders.

County election challenge

Devon County Council comes up for reelection in May 2017. In 2013, the Tories won 38 of the 62 seats on a mere 35 per cent of the vote. Under first past the post, the divided Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and Independents between them won only 20 seats for 41 per cent of the vote. (UKIP, which polled 23 per cent, won 4 seats.)

It is obvious that none of the three centre and left opposition parties can win a majority in 2017. The Lib Dems may keep some strongholds, but they are still picking themselves up from their 2015 battering, and elsewhere local activists are thin on the ground.

Despite a deep conflict between Bradshaw and pro-Corbyn Momentum activists, Labour will probably keep its Exeter seats, but is unlikely to win in the rural areas and small towns. Rural Labour parties have seen the Corbyn surge in membership but with modest benefits for local activism – a constituency party which has trebled its membership to 500 may still only get about 15 people to its meetings. Members vote for their preferred leader, but have too little scope to change things locally. Even if it advances, Labour is starting from a very low base, and the Greens are smaller.

New politics?

The 2015 elections saw important steps forward for a different kind of politics in semi-rural East Devon. From a standing start, Independent candidate Claire Wright leapfrogged UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems to take second place in the East Devon parliamentary constituency of Hugo Swire, a ‘Cameron croney’ since knighted in his resignation honours. It was the only Independent second place anywhere in England, after a grassroots campaign typically ignored by the national press.

In parallel, the East Devon Alliance, formed in 2013 out of revulsion at the Brown case and East Devon’s pro-developer bias, put up over 30 district council candidates and succeeded, despite the simultaneous Tory general election victory, in taking ten seats from the Tories (this writer was an unsuccessful candidate). Independents led by EDA replaced the Lib Dems as the official opposition.

An investigative blog, East Devon Watch, has played an important informational role in the new politics, now matched by a South Devon Watch site. An Independent group successfully challenged for control of Buckfastleigh Town Council, in the Teinbridge district, at the same time as the better-known ‘flatpack democracy’ of Frome in Somerset. A loose Independent network is emerging across the South West, including Cornwall.

Although social media played an important part in these campaigns, many relied heavily on old-fashioned doorstep campaigning. A new campaign to influence the County Council elections, Devon United, is perhaps the first – certainly the most ambitious – initiative to be actually launched through social media. Its first meeting in October will be addressed by Paul Hilder, co-founder of OpenDemocracy.net and CrowdPac and former global campaigns director for Avaaz and Change.org.

I have written recently about the limitations of the national progressive crowdsourcing campaign organisation, 38 Degrees, during and after the Brexit vote. It remains to be seen what happens when crowdsourced politics meets local electioneering, and how the division of the anti-Tory vote will be overcome. But this initiative shows that the new politics is alive and kicking in a county where the old politics has so manifestly failed.