Source: Financial Times

How ‘vice-signalling’ swallowed electoral politics 

  • Politicians have always pandered. But lately, political stunts, from Trump’s wall to Johnson’s Rwanda flights, have taken a darker turn

Stephen Bush

On Friday June 30 2000, Tony Blair was addressing a theology conference in Tübingen, Germany, when he proposed a novel way to deal with crime and antisocial behaviour: on-the-spot fines. “A thug might think twice about kicking in your gate, throwing traffic cones around your street or hurling abuse into the night sky,” the then UK prime minister said, “if he thought he might get picked up by the police, taken to a cashpoint and asked to pay an on-the-spot fine of, for example, £100.”

Michael Mansfield, a human rights lawyer, condemned the proposal as “Orwellian in concept”, while the Conservative opposition did what opposition parties always do when confronted with a scheme they don’t think will work but they fear will be popular: they branded it a gimmick. 

And, of course, it was a gimmick. The policy barely survived the weekend. Having been floated by Blair on the Friday, it had essentially been abandoned by the following Monday, thanks to the opposition of police leaders. Although a limited version of the idea made its way into law in the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, it fell far short of Blair’s vision.

The policy’s collapse was hardly surprising. The prospect that, of an evening, the UK police would have the time and resources to not only dispense summary justice but also to march people up to a cashpoint would always have been impossible to implement — even without the not-unreasonable liberal objections it provoked. 

A little under 15 years later, on June 16 2015 in New York, Donald Trump — back then only a businessman and reality-TV star — launched his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, pledging to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me. And I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border,” Trump said, adding for good measure: “And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

In the end, President Trump extended the border fence separating the US from Mexico by just 80 miles. Mexico didn’t pay for a single cubic metre of concrete. 

In the years separating Tony Blair’s speech at Tübingen and Donald Trump’s launch at Trump Tower, the term “virtue signalling” started to emerge on the internet. Although the term’s precise origins are contested, it was popularised in a Spectator column by the writer James Bartholomew, who defined the act as “indicating you are kind, decent and virtuous” while being anything but.

When Disney uses the Star Wars Twitter account to spotlight LGBTQ+ characters from the franchise’s tie-in comics, while cutting a same-sex kiss from its cinematic releases, they are, fairly or unfairly, accused of virtue signalling. They want the cachet of being supportive of LGBTQ+ issues without potentially losing out on viewers, where it would hurt the bottom line.

We wouldn’t usually associate draconian measures on crime and punishment, or, indeed, a literal wall standing between two nations, as signs of virtue. These are examples of what you might instead call “vice signalling”: ostentatious displays of authoritarianism designed to reassure voters that you are “tough” on crime or immigration. And on that measure, both Blair’s on-the-spot fines and Trump’s border wall achieved their aim perfectly.

Vice signalling, as with virtue signalling, can help force your opponent into tricky political terrain

Blair’s Labour party was re-elected in 2001 and 2005 and, on both occasions, voters trusted it more than the opposition Conservatives on the vital issue of crime. In 2016, Trump’s hardline positioning on immigration issues allowed him to pivot his party’s policy platform to a more centre-ground position on social security and entitlements. Not only did this allow him to win over enough Democratic voters to enter the White House, equally importantly it also shifted the balance of the Republican coalition, making it even easier for his party to win power via the electoral college than it had been beforehand. 

Signalling matters in politics because most people vote on what political scientists call “valence” — your perceived competence on various issues. Now, there is no easy way to signal that you are competent at fighting crime or policing your nation’s borders, because most voters at any given time are not in direct contact with law enforcement or immigration agencies. But showy, conversation-starting pledges are a good way of -signalling your commitment. 

From a politician’s perspective, the other benefit of vice -signalling, as with virtue signalling, is that it can help force your opponent into tricky political terrain. In 1988, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher passed the Local Government Act into law, which included the now-infamous Section 28. It ruled that no local authority could “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, while no state school could “promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

The law was essentially unenforceable, and no one was ever successfully prosecuted under the act. But it achieved its political aims, in causing internal divisions within the opposition Labour party, and signalling to socially conservative voters that the Thatcher government was “on their side”. 

Today in the UK, Boris Johnson’s government is engaging in some vice signalling of its own with its Rwanda resettlement policy. Under the terms of the arrangement, anyone journeying to the UK, whether in the back of a lorry, or on a boat across the Channel, faces a “heads I lose, tails you win” situation. If their application is successful, they are provided a home not in the UK but in Rwanda, and if their application is unsuccessful they are deported back to their country of origin.

The British government has embarked on the scheme because, after Brexit, the EU’s frontiers have come to the UK, and with them, an increased number of people seeking a better life here on boats of varying degrees of seaworthiness (the UK is no longer part of the EU’s Common European Asylum System, which effectively allowed the government to reduce the number of people eligible to claim asylum in the UK).

The boats spook MPs, whose hold on power relies on continuing to win the support of voters across the British right. The spectre of hundreds of people coming to the UK every day, Tory MPs fear, will send their voters either to parties to the Conservatives’ right or cause them not to vote at all. Either leaves them vulnerable to electoral defeat, thanks to the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

The policy is full of holes and has no realistic prospect of working any more effectively than Blair’s on-the-spot fines, Thatcher’s Section 28 or Trump’s wall. The theory is that the prospect of being sent to Rwanda will deter would-be migrants, but the very real prospect of, at worst, a briny death in the Channel or, at best, having to make a permanent living in the UK’s underground economy has not deterred would-be crossers.

A journey to Rwanda is not going to move the dial for most people. When Israel briefly embarked on a similar policy, it found that while it could send would-be immigrants to Rwanda, it was powerless when those very same people left Rwanda for a second crack at moving to Israel. 

The point of these policies isn’t to work. It’s to give Conservative MPs something to talk about when they are asked to explain why 300 or so people arrived by boat yesterday. If it can discomfort Labour, so much the better. 

And in some ways, it is just as well. Because the Rwanda policy does not work. The UK government has, at time of writing, failed to send even a single person there, though it did charter a private flight at considerable expense, before being forced to cancel it in the face of legal challenges. Just as with Section 28, however, that the policy may never in practice be enforced doesn’t mean it won’t cause real harm.

A gay teenager whose teacher feels they cannot reassure them that there is nothing wrong with their feelings experiences real harm. Someone who comes to the UK, gets a job working for a gangmaster and feels they cannot go to the authorities for help because they think they are better off being exploited in the UK than living in Rwanda experiences real harm. 

Just as with Section 28, the fact that the policy may never in practice be enforced doesn’t mean it won’t cause real harm

If you take the long view, Boris Johnson’s Rwanda policy and Donald Trump’s border wall are just the same old, same old. What separates the governments of Johnson and Trump from those of Thatcher and Blair is that Thatcher and Blair’s exercises in vice signalling were about creating the political space to do other things.

Thatcher’s government privatised large swaths of the UK economy and radically reformed the labour market. Blair pumped big sums of money into public services and introduced a raft of socially liberal reforms.

Donald Trump controlled the White House while his party had a majority in both houses of Congress for two years. His sole policy achievement in office was a programme of tax cuts that have since expired. The “big lie” of Obamacare, despite his best efforts and his promises, was neither repealed nor replaced. (His lasting impact, tilting the Supreme Court to the far right, likely for a generation, was largely executed by Republicans in the Senate.)

As for Boris Johnson and the ruling Conservatives, the party increasingly resembles a performance art installation rather than a serious governing project. Even when you talk to loyalist MPs, there is little sense that the government’s vice-signalling stunts have any greater political purpose other than to win another election and with it, more time for further vice-signalling stunts. No one seriously believes that a Johnson-led government will do anything of substance with its time in office. So what’s the point of the stunts?

That failure has real and serious implications. The big mistake that criticisms of virtue signalling make is to believe that virtue signalling doesn’t matter. The person or organisation doing it may have a shallow commitment to the virtues they are signalling, but to the people who care about the issue in question, those signals matter a great deal. They are a promise of serious action. When an ordinary person engages in an act of what we dismiss as “virtue signalling”, what they are actually doing is telling us what really matters to them. And when ordinary people “vice signal”, they are doing the same. 

The perception that Disney does not do enough for LGBTQ+ causes or for its employees ultimately forced the corporation into a political stand-off with Florida’s Republicans over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a piece of legislation that echoes Section 28 in -several ways. The belief that mainstream political parties do not do enough about supposedly virtue-signalling causes such as -climate change or international development has seen parties of the centre left lose votes to ecological and far-left policies. 

While Blair’s on-the-spot fines never came into being, crime and antisocial behaviour did, in fact, fall under his government. His government’s vice signalling revealed real intent and was accompanied by measures that fulfilled the spiritual promise of his showy pledges.

In the US, the fact that the Trump administration didn’t really seem to care about doing anything other than winning is one reason why his refusal to accept defeat has caused so many political convulsions in that country. In the UK, the fact that Boris Johnson’s ostentatious commitment to reducing the amount of illegal immigration won’t solve the problem may result merely in Conservative defeat at the next election. 

But the government’s vice signalling on immigration and border control may also pave the way for a government that takes those signals seriously, and seeks to implement them through policies that the Johnson government is willing to wink at but not actually implement, be that leaving the European Court of Human Rights or tackling the movement of people by boat in ways that endanger more and more lives.

The real problem with vice signalling is that it risks sending what is, in a democracy, the most dangerous signal of all: that politicians do not really care about their electorate’s concerns, other than as a device to win and to hold on to their own power.

Stephen Bush is an FT associate editor and columnist