Not Ben's Blog: The Sequel

Old age protesters are driving political dissent in this country

“Try and track down Mark Thomas while I’m away,” said Ben as he departed for the wilds of Cornwall in his Bentley, leaving me to perform the online equivalent of watering the cat and feeding the plants. “And good luck.”

In fact it proved rather easier to locate the elusive comic campaigner than I’d imagined. There he was on stage last Saturday, addressing the crowds that had gathered in Trafalgar Square for the latest anti-war/stop Trident demonstration.

Mark’s best gag was to wonder why we needed a deterrent when the last nuclear assault on this country occured in a central London sushi bar. As he wisely pointed out, any number of Union Jack-stamped warheads can’t counter the polonium-laced tuna and sashimi menace.

Anyway, Mark is back on newstatesman.com this week, inviting you to download a badge (surely a web first?) of the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

You should be aware that this could, strictly, count as “glorifying terrorism” after a parliamentary book launch for a collection of Ocalan’s prison writings was banned on just those grounds – but you can always claim it’s Borat, says Mark. Separated at birth? Read the article and make up your own mind.

Back to the subject of Saturday’s march, one thing that struck me was the average age of those on the streets. Public demonstrations are traditionally associated with youthful idealism yet judging by the number of OAPs (old age protesters) I saw, more of those involved had cut their political teeth marching to Aldermaston in the 1960s than on the great anti-war gathering of 2003.

Even the speakers are beginning to show their age. Tony Benn, that sacred totem of the left, recalled that he had first spoken in Trafalgar Square more than half a century ago at the time of that other misconceived British military misadventure, Suez. Livingstone, Galloway and the numerous veterans of Greenham Common are hardly new voices either.

Only Rose Gentle, speaking eloquently and emotionally about the death of her soldier son, Gordon, in Iraq, ensured the day did not simply become a nostalgic tribute to a golden age of leftie activism.

None of this is to belittle the efforts of those present or their contribution to the long and illustrious history of protest in this country, but it is to wonder where the next generation of political campaigners will come from. Four years ago Ms. Dynamite represented the yoof voice, but now even she is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, the Stop the War coalition has now hit on a fairly desperate scheme to try to engage the iPod generation, urging peace campaigners to download a new version of Edwin Starr’s classic “War (What is it good for?)” purporting to be by Ugly Rumours, Tony Blair’s former musical collaborators.

“Tony Blair’s band is back – You can send the Prime Minister into the charts,” says the website hopefully.

Even the song is old. And as if the kids care who's No. 1 in the pop charts anymore anyway.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital