Johnson fires another warning shot at Miliband

Shadow chancellor calls for major reform of the Labour leadership voting system.

Having elected Ed Miliband as leader less than two months ago, now may seem an odd time for Labour to re-open the debate over its arcane voting system. But that's what the increasingly outspoken Alan Johnson has done. He tells the Times (£): "I would like to see a full one-member one-vote system for leadership contests. At the moment it can be one-member four votes and that's wrong."

Had Johnson's man won (he was a key supporter of David Miliband), one suspects that he may not be so preoccupied with the rule book. But, regardless of his political motives, he makes a convincing argument. As I've pointed out before, the party's tripartite electoral college (divided between MPs/MEPs, party members, and affiliated trade unions and socialist societies) means that some votes are worth significantly more than others. The vote of one MP is worth the votes of 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members. The vote of one party member is worth the votes of 21 affiliated members. The electoral college system puts Labour out of step with the Tories and the Lib Dems, both of whom elect leaders using a one-member-one-vote system. It would be a mistake for Labour to adopt this system in its purest form; it is both just and necessary for affiliated trade unions, as the founders of the party, to have a say over the leadership. But the extraordinary power held by the PLP can no longer be justified.

There's also no reason to think that Miliband wouldn't be sympathetic to reform. Liam Byrne, who is overseeing Labour's policy review, says that he now expects the party's leadership rules to be "on the table" in discussions. But what's troubling for Labour's leader is that some of those calling for the system to be reformed are, in effect, declaring his election illegitimate. Simmering resentment at the fact that Miliband wasn't the choice of party members and MPs has burst into the open. Alan Milburn and Margaret Hodge both call for the party to deprieve the unions of a say in the leadership election, without whom, of course, Miliband would not have won. Meanwhile, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke issue some of the strongest criticisms we've heard of the Labour leader.

"The problem for Ed is that he got dipped in the Gordon paint pot," says Blunkett. Clarke comments: "Ed Miliband is back to the comfort zone. I don't think he's 'Red Ed' particularly but he hasn't so far shown that he's into challenge." Of the above, Clarke and Milburn are, of course, no longer MPs. But the fear for Team Miliband is that they speak for a significant Blairite constituency in the party. As Dan Hodges reports in this week's magazine (out today), sections of the party remain in a state of unease and unrest following Miliband's repudiation of New Labour.

One shouldn't exaggerate the dissent we're beginning to hear. After all, by historical standards, the Labour Party remains remarkably united. But it looks like Miliband will have some firefighting to do when he returns to Westminster.

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.