Jeremy Browne: Clegg’s man in the Home Office

The Orange Book liberal is preparing for a renewal of coalition vows after the next election.

The Home Office is not a place to be squeamish about state power. As the department responsible for preventing crime and disorder, its stock-in-trade is monitoring, control and coercion. Under the coalition government, it seems perpetually to be “cracking down” on something.
It was the Home Office that came up with the idea of driving mobile billboards inviting illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest” around multiracial boroughs of London. It was a mistake, says Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat minister of state at the department responsible. “I was not consulted beforehand, neither was Nick Clegg, and that is a serious oversight.” Browne defends the voluntary repatriation policy but is scathing about the way the signal was sent out: “The debate about immigration should be conducted in a tone that is civilised and humane, rather than pandering to the least attractive elements in the human spirit.”
We meet in Browne’s sparse room at the Home Office, where he has been for just a year. He was previously Clegg’s man at the Foreign Office. The move was seen in Westminster as an attempt to get more leverage in a department that often aggravates liberal scruples. But if Browne’s unofficial job title is thwarter-in-chief of authoritarian Tory tendencies, he isn’t letting on. The Conservatives, he says, are the second most liberal party when it comes to home affairs, while Labour attacks the coalition from populist, right-wing positions.
“The Conservatives may be a magnetic force pulling the Lib Dems away from a purer form of liberalism but it’s not true that if we were in coalition with Labour, it would represent some easy, liberal utopia. There would be a much bigger gap to bridge to try to accommodate the authoritarian instincts of the Labour Party.”
Browne is a classical liberal from the Orange Book wing of his party – the side that was suspicious of socialism and state intervention even before the opportunity arose to make common cause with the Conservatives. While some left-leaning Lib Dems are wary of their party’s proximity to David Cameron, Browne is certain that the Tory leader has a firmer grasp of the challenges facing the country than Ed Miliband does. He declares “the global race” – Cameron’s pet theme – to be “the big issue of our time”. By contrast, he describes Labour as “intellectually lazy, running on empty” and suffering from “a leadership void”. “I just don’t think of them as equipped to run the country,” he says.
It sounds as if Browne is preparing for a renewal of coalition vows after the next election. There are, he claims, Tories who would rather keep the current arrangement than go it alone and be held to ransom by maverick backbenchers. For these “moderate Conservatives”, the worst-case scenario at the next election is a small majority. “They would be beholden to the people on the right of the party, who have a lot more in common with Ukip than they do with David Cameron.”
In Browne’s view, there are between 25 and 30 Tory MPs who reject the Prime Minister’s authority. (“They actually like the idea of wielding their collective muscle to push him around.”) He says that, as a result, “The Conservatives would have difficulty governing in as stable a fashion as this coalition government has done with a majority of much less than 40 or 50.”
This is a rehearsal of the Lib Dems’ pitch at the next election. Neither of the two main parties, they will say, can be trusted to govern alone; both need leavening with a dose of Cleggism. It is an optimistic line from a party whose poll ratings languish in single figures. Ukip, I suggest, is now performing the function that the Lib Dems once had as the place voters go to express a rejection of the big Westminster parties.
Browne does not recoil from the comparison. Nigel Farage’s party, he says, is mimicking the strategy that the Lib Dems used to graduate from protest vehicle to potential party of government. Ukip is here to stay. “We are moving away from bipolar politics, where every opinion is corralled into two main parties, to a situation where more and more things are being unpackaged.”
Browne even argues that the Lib Dems and Ukip, despite competing for third place in opinion polls, represent a more precise account of the rival visions that politics offers Britain. “Essentially, the big choice the country faces is not really embodied that well by the two biggest parties: it is represented by the Lib Dems and Ukip. That’s where it’s thrown into stark relief.” He defines the contest as between “pulling the drawbridge up, erecting barriers to the outside”, and “being a welcoming, liberal, outward-looking, internationalist country that embraces the opportunities of globalisation”.
That means being more relaxed about immigration than British politics seems to allow. Browne describes himself as part of the “unfashionable minority” that celebrates the opening of British borders to EU workers from eastern Europe. “I don’t think there was a mistake. It was transformational in terms of Britain’s relationship with countries like Poland . . . It was in our foreign policy interest but, at a much more direct, micro level, there are lots of employers in my constituency and around the country who are full of praise for the contribution that Poles have made to their businesses and the economy more generally.”
Will the Lib Dems be so enthusiastic about the Romanian and Bulgarian migrants who will enjoy new freedoms to work in Britain from next January? “They’re only complying with the same rules as British people who live in Spain or have holiday houses in France, or who work in Germany.” Browne is quick to add the caveat that the influx has put pressure on public services, which accounts for much of the political backlash. “But I think if you look at the overall ledger . . . the positives outweigh the negatives.” 
Nick Clegg and Jeremy Browne speak with a police officer at the Stockwell Park Estate on April 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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