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Looking good by doing nothing: Corbyn and the slackactivist left

21 September 2015

12:18 PM

21 September 2015

12:18 PM

The Save Darfur page on Facebook was one of the most heart-warming successes of the early years of social media. Between 2007 and 2010, more than a million people joined to protest against the world’s indifference to the genocide in Darfur. Concerned and compassionate, their virtue shone forth for all their friends to see.

They had every reason to protest, and still do. When I was at refugee camp in Calais a few months, I did not meet any Syrians. By contrast, Sudanese, fleeing conscription by the militias in Darfur, and Eritreans fleeing a prison state, which is becoming Africa’s North Korea, were everywhere.

But Save Darfur is famous, not for its cries of protest against the world’s indifference to a crime against humanity, but for the demonstrable indifference of the supposed do-gooders, who signed up to it. As it turned out, they weren’t do-gooders, but look-gooders. They publicly announced their righteousness and then did nothing at all.

The University of California found 99.76 per cent of the one million-plus members failed to donate a penny to the cause.

“The study is an important counter-balance to unbridled enthusiasm for the powers of social media,” said one of its researchers. “There’s no inherent magic. Social media can activate interpersonal ties but won’t necessarily turn ordinary citizens into hyper-activists.”

Or indeed any kind of activist. James Bartholomew came up with the wonderful label  ‘virtue-signalling’ to describe the narcissism of their gesture politics. You see it every day on the Web. (Every day? What am I talking about? Every minute.)

The 140-character pronunciamentos. The activists who think they can deliver socialism with an angry Facebook status. The furious complaints all writers get from all sides demanding in outraged terms ‘what gives you the right to say this’. To which the only answer is ‘I have as much or as little right as you. If you disagree with me so violently, why don’t you write a book or make a film to put your point of view?’


They never do. It is not just that their only talent is to beat their chests and howl like enraged orang-u-tangs. They lack the application to construct an argument that might appeal to the unconverted, or tell a story that remedies the real and imagined biases of this novelist or that filmmaker.

An unasked question in Britain today is whether Corbyn’s victory was the revolt of a new social movement or just a result of idle agitators signalling their virtue.

For the left it is an urgent question. As I have said from the start of the Labour leadership campaign , you cannot impose a presidential candidate on a parliamentary system and expect him to have authority. However many clickactivists he persuaded to join Labour’s ‘pay £3 and win a vote’ scheme, the leader of a British political party has to have MPs to fill his shadow cabinet, to go out and speak for him in public, and to support his programme in the Commons. Corbyn has hardly any.

Moderate Labour MPs are taking the opportunity to give him a good smacking. No, he can’t commit Labour to leaving the EU or NATO. No he cannot promise to pay for nationalising the utilities, and building public works by ordering the Bank of England to turn into a magic money tree.

‘You can’t really do anything,’ they tell him. ‘Except maybe build some more houses if you win an election, which – now read our lips, and mark our words – You. Are. Never. Going. To. Do’.

The far left may not be good for much but it is good at purging, as 20th century history shows. If it is to control the Labour Party, it is not enough to have a friend of half the dictators on the planet as leader and a terrorism tourist as shadow chancellor, it has to purge Labour MPs and get its own men – and they will be men – in place.

As 150,000 new members have joined the party since May, a purge shouldn’t be too hard to organise. But there is no evidence to date that online activists are on the move.Michael Crick, the political editors, of Channel 4 News, reported a few weeks ago:

A left-wing supporter of Jeremy Corbyn has claimed that the far-left is preparing to oust several Labour MPs – who the activist condemned as “careerists” and right-wingers. A Unite organiser from South-East London has told me that Vicky Foxcroft, who was only just elected in May as the MP for Lewisham Deptford, is said to be among the prime targets for de-selection.

A friend of mine was outraged that far left was trying to take over her constituency. She stirred herself and went to the next meeting of the Lewisham Deptford party only to find the room filled with the same old timers who always turned up. ‘Where are they?’ the party members asked. ‘Where are the bloody trots?’

It appeared that they were happy to scream for revolution online, but when it came to getting off their posteriors and going to a meeting – think of it, an actual meeting – they couldn’t be bothered.

I still believe that the Labour Party will change. The weight of numbers of new members must surely have an effect. But for that to happen, a few of them will have to suffer the enormous inconvenience of levering themselves from their sofas, and engaging in political activity which is slightly more strenuous than typing a tweet.

PS It turns out that Libby Purves did not invent ‘virtue signalling’ as I originally suggested. James Bartholomew first used the term in an article in The Spectator in April 2015 – ‘Hating the Daily Mail is a substitute for doing good’:

There are many ways to advertise your virtue. You can say ‘I hate the Daily Mail!’ to suggest that you care about people who are poor and on welfare benefits. You are saying that you respect them, care about them and do them the honour of believing the vast majority to be honest and in need.

You can declare ‘Page 3 of the Sun was degrading and embarrassing’ if you are a man: this indicates your great respect for women. If, on the other hand, you are a woman, you can say ‘Isn’t Mary Beard marvellous!’ to show that you are way above the shallowness of mere physical appearance.

Virtue signalling crosses the political divide. When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself — as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it — cares about the poor in the developing world. The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant.

I have to say I find it slightly pathetic when writers don’t acknowledge a debt. Their plagiarism – assuming it was conscious in Purves’s case – is a sign of both ruthlessness and insecurity.

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