What next for Diane Abbott?

Ed Miliband says the Labour left-winger has a “part to play” after the leadership election.

It's another busy morning in the Labour leadership election with just a day to go until ballot papers land on party members' doormats.

The Miliband brothers have both criticised Peter Mandelson's astonishingly self-indulgent comments to the Times (£), Ed Balls has unveiled a housing plan that would use a £6bn windfall to build 100,000 extra affordable homes, and Andy Burnham is giving a speech on the NHS in Liverpool, appealing to the Lib Dems to oppose the Tories' break-up of the health service.

But, as on other occasions, it's Diane Abbott, once viewed as the most media-savvy of the candidates, who can't get a look-in. Despite the excitement that greeted her arrival on the ballot paper, Abbott's campaign has lacked momentum and just 11 of the 33 MPs who nominated her are now expected to vote for her. Abbott can bank on firmer support from the grass roots of the party but, as things stand, she may struggle to avoid last place.

However, consolation is at hand from Ed Miliband. Today's Times (£) reports that the younger Miliband has hinted that Abbott deserves a place in the shadow cabinet. At an event in Bethnal Green, east London, last night, Miliband said:

I'm not naming a shadow cabinet . . . that would be seen as presumptuous. And rightly so. But Diane shouldn't just go back to This Week when this is over. She has a part to play.

Miliband's comments may be cited by his brother's camp as another example of his alleged "pandering" to the left, but others would recall Lyndon Johnson's adage that "it's better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in".

One thing that could change the dynamic of the race is if Abbott does what no candidate has yet done and names a second preference. Could some future role for her be a quid pro quo for her support in the election? It would make a lot of sense.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.