The superfast lane to nowheresville

Are we focusing on the wrong sort of connectivity?

Policy Exchange has a new report out today, and I'm not going to lie, my attention was piqued by the pun-tastic title, The Superfast and the Furious, because, wow.

Anyway, it makes a number of interesting recommendations, mostly going against the trend in recent years for promoting the spread of so-called "superfast" broadband – usually delivered by fibre-optic cables, and largely confined to dense built-up areas.

Instead, the authors, Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink, argue that the government should refocus on helping the people who remain offline, since:

Whether or not the UK has the fastest superfast broadband relative to other countries is a redundant question.

There has always been a target of delivering broadband of at least 2Mbps to the 10 per cent of houses which won't be able to get superfast broadband, and in fact, it's that target which the report suggests may need to be recalibrated. It points out that setting an absolute level of what constitutes "acceptable" broadband speed is foolhardy: when the target was set, 2Mbps was fast; now it's the minimum requirement to use iPlayer, a standard technology; tomorrow it may be too slow to do other things which we have come to expect as standard. One option they propose instead is to track "broadband poverty", identifying the number of houses where the best broadband option is a certain percentage below the median.

The report is an important counter to the prevailing trend in internet policy, which seems to be driven a bit too much by the fact that superfast broadband is cool, while replacing miles of copper wire with slightly better copper wire in rural Cumbria isn't. After all, the leap from no internet to some is far greater than the leap from fast to superfast – and the damage caused by having none at all is real and concerning. A recent Oxford University study found that "there are substantial educational advantages in teenagers being able to access the internet at home", for instance, while the report itself cites the fact that small businesses which "embrace" the internet grow "substantially faster" than those which remain offline.

But the thing which the report misses is that there's a second priority which ought to be key for the government to press for, and that's reliability. The authors pass this off as a matter for competition:

For the general public, broadband price and reliability matter as much as raw speed, and the optimal trade-off will vary from home to home and over time. The best way through is to let the market balance different needs, which in turn requires effective competition between providers.

I'm not so sure that's correct. Advertised reliability is certainly something which providers compete on, but due to the stickiness of the market, it appears that they rarely need to live up to those promises.

Increasingly, uptime, rather than speed, is the limit to wider adoption of the "internet economy" which Yiu and Fink are so keen to trumpet (citing figures which show that around eight per cent of UK GDP is due to the internet); the fear, or experience, of a connection failure can lead to understandable reluctance to make too many operations dependent on the net. This is true of a number of hoped-for internet driven productivity enhancements. Consider telecommuting, for example. Anyone who has experienced multiple-day outages will know the fear that one could happen when crucial work is riding on it.

The question is whether more reliable connections can be achieved through the market alone. I have my doubts. The market for high-speed internet only really became competitive once bogus claims were cracked down on by the ASA – but providers have steered clear of making similarly testable claims about connection stability. And switching companies remains such a hassle that it exerts a massive drag on the efficiency of competition to motivate anything.

Still, we must hope for a b++++DROPPED CONNECTION++++

A car drives fast. This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide