Fear and loathing on the left

Why are Labour governments, from Attlee to Blair, always so riven by personal animosities? Andrew Ma

Why is the left so nasty? Why are politicians brought up in a Labour movement that bangs on about brotherhood and sisterhood so consumed with dislike and suspicion of one another? If we believe the newspapers, most members of the cabinet and many other Labour MPs are almost perpetually at daggers drawn, or at least simmering with mutual resentment. The rejoicing at Peter Mandelson's fall, and then the whooping at Charlie Whelan's resignation, are only the latest examples. And on this subject, mirabile dictu, the newspapers are certainly to be believed.

It is a tradition. One of Labour's mid- century heroes was Ernie Bevin, the trade union leader turned foreign secretary. Bevin has many earthy, pearl-encrusted lumps of wisdom for today's party. But new Labour has taken only one Bevinism to its heart: his retort to Attlee's remark about Herbert Morrison (a fellow member of the 1945-51 government) being his own worst enemy. Bevin snarled: "Not while I'm alive, he ain't."

So it goes on; a cosy party of worst enemies ever since, like a convoluted Sicilian family whose feuds are repeated generation after generation. John Prescott, the nearest we have to an Ernie Bevin, waged a long and malicious semi-public campaign against Mandelson, Morrison's grandson, constantly mispronouncing his name as "Mendelson", and once comparing him to a crab. Class hatred? Bevin would have approved. Meanwhile, I don't suppose there's a single important minister who someone else hasn't told me is lazy, corrupt or paranoid. Then, just as we were all digesting the Mandelson affair, we got an eerie echo of today's events, courtesy of the 30-year delay on cabinet papers being released. Alongside the modern grudge matches, the press simultaneously relayed the latest news from 1968 when Ray Gunter resigned from the Wilson government because he couldn't stand the "the bloody middle classes and intellectuals within the cabinet" and, in particular, "that bitch" Barbara Castle. There's a ringing feeling in my ears.

It was also the year of the fall of George Brown and he, too, was a famous hater. There's a story about him marching up to Len Williams, an ex-general secretary of the Labour Party, and one of Brown's enemies, who had just agreed to become the governor-general of Mauritius. Did the post involve wearing a plumed hat, Brown pleasantly asked. Yes, said Williams modestly, yes it did. "Well," said Brown, "I hope your fucking feathers fall out."

Is Labour fated to relive, government after government, the poisonous personal feuding that undermines the party's moral authority? And if so, why? Before the election, Tony Blair was warned that his biggest headache in No 10 was likely to be relations between his senior ministers - Gordon Brown and Mandelson, Brown and Robin Cook, Cook and Mandelson, Prescott and Brown, and so on. He laughed the idea off.

He probably isn't laughing now. This might be less damaging if it weren't for the striking similarities with cabinet feuding in the now-reviled Wilson years. The publication of Dick Crossman's cabinet diaries in the mid-1970s was a watershed because, for the first time, it tipped the cabinet's mutual animosities and bitterness into the public arena. For people outside the closed world of Whitehall and the press lobby, it was a moment of revelation. I can vividly remember my history teacher's shock and amazement as he read out entries to us.

Harold Wilson, realising what damage was being done, tried to get the rules on publication of cabinet diaries toughened up - to little effect, since the Castle diaries and then the voluminous Benn diaries followed. Crossman himself had gone to the root of the matter years earlier, when he wrote in his back-bench diaries in 1956: "When the Tories are in trouble they bunch together and cogger up. When we get into trouble, we start blaming each other and rushing to the press to tell them all the terrible things that somebody else has done."

Tory coggering had rather fallen out of fashion by the time of the Major government - or rather, when they did cogger up, someone was usually left dead on the Westminster marble afterwards. Under post-Crossman glasnost, we know a lot about how much the Tories came to loathe one another, as their European battle raged on. The Lawson and Howe resignations, then Margaret Thatcher's own bitterness at her removal ("treachery . . . treachery with a smile on its face") had set the scene for John Major and the "bastards". And, at the height of the battle, the hatreds were deep and real. I recall walking with Norman Lamont down Whitehall after his resignation; Tristan Garel-Jones, spotting us, immediately crossed four lanes of moving traffic to seize Lamont by the arm and warn him in bloodthirstily unrepeatable terms what he would do to him if he went public against Major. There are scores of similar stories still knocking around. These are vendettas that will probably last for a generation. Purely from a journalistic point of view, I do hope so.

But this should be of little comfort to the present cabinet. For one thing, the Tory feuds were mostly about policy, very important policy, and were perhaps unavoidable given the difficult choices facing the Thatcher and Major governments over Britain's destiny. Second, those governments were destroyed by them. Third, in the political mythology, Tories are supposed to be nasty - but efficient. They don't go on about fraternity and comradeship, do they? So again, why are Labour people so nasty to one another? Is it that lefties are simply disagreeable? That they are either cold, intellectual renegades from the upper middle classes, driven by dislike of their own backgrounds; or working-class politicians who despise the middle-class people they have to mix with?

Could be: academia, trade unionism and left-wing activism are all poor training-grounds for niceness and mutual respect. Academia is famously poisonous and rivalry-ridden. The clash between factions in the unions produced a culture of leak and counter-leak that was brought into government again in 1997. And the climate of oppositionism around the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s was particularly grim.

There is a hilarious and uncomfortable account of those times, Things Can Only Get Better: eighteen miserable years in the life of a Labour supporter (Doubleday, 1998) by the comedy writer John O'Farrell, which rings bells with many of us who were there.

"The media coined phrases like 'Hard Left' or 'Militant Left' but 'Very, Very Boring Left' would have been more accurate," writes O'Farrell. "It wasn't the left-wing-ness in itself that was the problem, it was the excessively bad-tempered and humourless way in which the left argued its corner. . . We had somehow got it into our heads that a period in opposition meant that we were now opposed to everything."

Some of the things O'Farrell decided were right wing were "flowers, fish knives, ladies' hats, power steering, Wellington boots, the county of Surrey, Donald Duck, conservatories, and any girl's name that ended in the letter 'a' . . . One of the people that I lived with in Exeter decided that smiling was right wing. He pretended to be miserable as a sort of political statement throughout the early 1980s."

I remember people like that. And, let's be honest, there have been humourless, life- hating lefties since the Levellers began hawking Socialist Peasant around Middlesex; and certainly since Robespierre gave purity a bad name. It is the psychological profile described by George Orwell: "The typical socialist is a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings."

There's nothing wrong with a bit of puritanism, particularly in January, but it is connected to a left moral fundamentalism that can easily turn nasty. O'Farrell again: "We all believed, or rather we knew, that socialism would solve everything and that any particular individual who happened to be to the right of us was responsible for all the world's problems and therefore we hated them. As far as I can remember, just about everyone I knew on the left was like this. Angry, negative and totally un-self-aware. And Tony Benn gave the British left its chance to vent its ugly spleen in public. At regular intervals the news would feature Benn supporters booing Denis Healey, pelting him with missiles and picketing his meetings. They seemed to hate him more than they hated Margaret Thatcher."

It wouldn't be hard to see how a party whose left-wing members had marinated themselves in self-righteous hatred (remember Nye Bevan's 1948 proclamation of his "deep and burning hatred of the Tories . . . they are lower than vermin") might carry this right to the top. But there are a couple of problems with the thesis that Labour, despite the generosity of its vision, is somehow nasty by nature. First, most of the people feuding in cabinet had nothing to do with that era of ultra-leftism. Brown, Cook, Prescott - they hated it at the time as much as O'Farrell hates it in retrospect. Second, if it were true, then the Labour right would be conspicuously nicer than the Labour left, and that also isn't so. Denis Healey had a brilliant line in invective. Think of his famous remark about David Owen: that when he was born, the good fairy had given him everything - good looks, brilliant intelligence, luck. "Unfortunately, the bad fairy made him a shit." Nor would it be entirely true to say that, for instance, dear Gerald Kaufman was a kindly old soul. Or that Mandelson himself pursued a "speak no evil" policy.

No, I think the real answer is a mixture of all this, and something else, which is simply that Labour has spent too long in opposition. Out of power, the big egos kept themselves warm by dreaming of top jobs. But these are, by definition, very limited indeed. The same was true of the early Wilson years and of the Attlee government. What has changed is that the constant competition among desperate souls, for a handful of slippery perches, now takes place in front of a media that is itself more desperately competitive, and that exaggerates the smallest differences. This produces a bitchy climate that few ministers can resist. Since Tony Blair, who doesn't seem to have a malicious bone in his body, is one of the few who can resist, perhaps he can use recent events to draw a line under the warfare. Enough people have gone. Enough others have been frightened. Perhaps this really is grow-up time.

Everyone I've been talking to tells me so. They know that, in the long term, this behaviour is deadly. On the other hand, I can't help thinking that at the back of their minds there is a piece of advice that rings louder still. It's Stalin: "There is really nothing more delightful than carefully plotting a trap into which your enemy in the party is bound to fall, and then going to bed." Ho, ho, comrade, ho, ho.

Andrew Marr writes for the "Express" and the "Observer"

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.