Sian gets sucked into Facebook

The power of Facebook to the politician plus Ken Livingstone impersonators and other issues

I can hardly fit in writing a blog this week, but I have managed to grab a few minutes away from Facebook to jot a few thoughts down.

For ages and ages I resisted getting involved with this latest manifestation of web 2.0, much as I resisted the lure of a mobile phone for almost a decade. With mobiles I wanted to see if there was any lasting damage to the brain, so I let everyone else be guinea pigs for as long as possible before signing up. I had similar concerns with Facebook but a couple of weeks ago I was persuaded to set up a profile, and now I’m utterly sucked in.

As a politician, Facebook turns out to be a great way to present your views and get feedback from people. Anyone can join your groups and write comments on your ‘wall’ or start a discussion topic (my group Siân for London Mayor has picked up 168 members in just a few weeks, which is lovely) and the ability to post videos lets people see you in flesh talking about their concerns. It all makes producing leaflets to push through letterboxes look rather old school and one-sided.

However, much as I predicted, fiddling around on Facebook can use up a huge amount of time. The trouble is it’s very addictive – you can spend hours checking your ‘friend requests’, touring round the profiles of friends of friends of friends, seeing what groups they belong to and where they went on their holidays. And God help you if you start adding applications.

There are millions of these; mostly ersatz games that use Facebook’s networking capacity to create huge contests between different camps. If you join Facebook, you will quickly be inundated with invitations to take sides in an epic battle between werewolves and vampires, or approached by recruiters from the pirates, ninjas, zombies and jedis. I have been sent gifts ranging from poker chips to fish for my aquarium. I don’t think I can take on any of this responsibility so I’m steering clear of the ‘apps’ for the time being.

On the other hand, the groups on Facebook are a great way to get involved in political mischief. Looking for a group that opposes the mad Thames Gateway motorway bridge, I found one with a ‘related groups’ list showing it mainly included local Conservatives (the list is compiled automatically, based on the other groups members belong to). But, adding it to my groups brought ‘No to the Thames Gateway Bridge’ to the attention of Greens in London so, a couple of dozen new members later, the related groups were ‘Sian for London Mayor’, ‘Census Alert’, ‘Green Party’, ‘Renationalise the British Railway Network’ and ‘Campaign Against Climate Change’. Result! (Although this might change if the Tories decide to fight back.)

You see, it’s very hard not to be competitive about all this. My declared rivals in the London Mayor election next year don’t appear to be up yet officially, but there’s plenty to be jealous of in the meantime. There are literally hundreds of student Boris Johnson fan clubs on Facebook, including ‘Boris for King’, ‘Boris for Pope’ and ‘Boris Johnson for President of the World’, plus about equal numbers of ‘Re-elect Ken’ and ‘Anyone but Ken’ groups.

The most plausible Livingstone impersonator has put all the right details into his profile, but the picture seems to give the game away. Would the real Ken Livingstone have chosen to show himself standing in front of a row of bearskinned royal guards? I beg to quibble, and none of the nineteen ‘Boris Johnsons’ are very convincing either.

Facebook seems a much friendlier place than the internet at large, mainly due to the way it’s arranged in overlapping networks, so there is a danger that our efforts are only reaching natural Green supporters (not a bad thing, initially anyway). All my Facebook friends are pretty wholesome, so I rarely see anything dodgy, but I got a bit of a shock when a troll appeared on a Green Party group and posted something nasty (since removed by us). I went to have a look at his profile, and a whole world of unpleasant interest groups and right-wing nonsense was revealed, all of which I’ll continue to avoid in the future.

On the whole I’m enjoying myself at the moment, but two improvements I’d made immediately are for the admins to kick off the BNP’s groups and to heed our call to list ‘green’ as your political view (the closest their US-focused drop-down menu has at the moment is ‘very liberal’ but we have a campaign of emailing them to persuade them to change it).

These examples show Facebook’s one major drawback. Like many successful web ventures, Facebook’s success comes from its ubiquity; I can see the day when nearly everyone is on it, and this does put a lot of power into the hands of one company. I’d be very reluctant to put any truly personal information into my Facebook profile because of the US-based nature of the database and the fact that the Patriot Act means their intelligence services have easy access.

Things like not being able to list your political beliefs are relatively trivial, but the rest of the world probably has greater problems with its monolingual English interface. Britain also has to put up with enormous ‘local networks’ at the moment, with a ‘London’ network of little use compared with the ability to create one for each borough or neighbourhood. The power to do this (or to choose a fascist-free network) lies with the developers, not the users, so I’m looking forward to the Son of Facebook being a peer-to-peer system that is far more adaptable and lets us choose how we share this information and where it goes.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).