Advantage, Obama as voting begins in the US

The opinion polls have hardened in favour of the President in the last days of the campaign.

The US goes to the polls today with Barack Obama on the brink of an historic re-election. After a brutal campaign in which the Romney and Obama camps have spent an estimated $6bn between them, making this race comfortably the most expensive election in history, the two candidates are separated by just over one per cent in the national opinion polls. However, Obama holds slight leads in most of the key swing states, including the perennial bellwether state of Ohio. Of the states picked up by Obama against John McCain in 2008, Romney holds poll leads in just Indiana and North Carolina, with Florida and Virginia in a dead-heat.

The two candidates have splurged over $700m on television adverts, most of them negative, in the battleground states. Aside from the presidency, the entire House of Representatives, 34 Senators and 11 governors will be decided today. However, after months of intense campaigning, little is expected to change. The Democrats are poised to retain a narrow majority in the Senate, with the Republicans unlikely to pick up the four seats it needs to take control. In Missouri, Republican candidate Todd Aikin, whose comments about "legitimate rape" rarely leading to pregnancy sparked widespread outrage, is However, the huge gains GOP gains on the back of the Tea Party campaign are not expected to be wiped out, with the Democrats set to fall well short of the 25 gains needed to take a majority in the House of Representatives.

The political deadlock that has existed since the Republicans took control of the House in 2010 is set to continue. In truth, US politics is more divided than it has been for a generation. Despite committing a series of media gaffes, the most notorious being a secretly-filmed video of Romney dismissing the "47 per cent of electors who don't pay income tax and won't vote for me", the former Massachusetts governor has remained in contention. In particular, the Romney campaign was energised by a strong performance against a lacklustre Obama in the first Presidential debate on 3 October. However, after recovering in the final two debates. An opinion poll released over the weekend by the Washington Post found that 79 per cent rated Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy, which ripped through north-eastern America last week, as excellent or good. The President has since been bolstered by October's employment statistics showing that 171,000 jobs had been added to the economy.

Even small factors such as the weather - the forecast for Florida promises rain on Tuesday - may come into play as the party machines complete their 'get out the vote' programmes. However, turnout is expected to be up to five per cent lower than the 57 per cent seen in 2008.

Volunteers at the Romney office in St Petersburg maintain an upbeat demeanour, with a chart on the wall showing the numbers from the minority of favourable opinion polls. But the mood is brittle. Canvassers say they are "scared for their country". One lady tells me that "Obama-care forcing everybody to be equal is just wrong", complaining that the new healthcare regime would force Catholic charities to offer abortions and birth control. She says that she and her husband had to sell their home to pay rising medical bills 'but that's how it works" and proudly states that no Congressional Republicans voted for the bill.

The antipathy to their opponents is not reserved to Republicans. Victoria Yeroian, Young Democrats President at Virginia Commonwealth university in Richmond, describes the Tea Party to me as "an organised version of the Ku Klux Klan".

Democrat party operatives in Virginia and Florida have been in full lock-down mode when it comes to speaking to journalists but seem quietly confident amid the bustle of campaigning activity. The opinion polls have hardened in favour of the President in the last few days, and Democrats have been cheered by New York Times's uber-pollster Nate Silver, who projected a comfortable Obama win on Monday night, placing the vital bellwether state of Ohio, along with Florida and Virginia, in the Democrat column. Silver's formula puts a 92 per cent likelihood on Obama being re-elected, estimating that the President will claim between 310-315 electoral college votes.

As ever, attention will focus on the three big swing states - Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. No Republican has ever won the keys to the White House without claiming Ohio, but Romney needs to claim the Buckeye State and either Florida or a clutch of smaller swing states. The world is watching as America votes.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer.

Barack Obama calls volunteers as he visits a campaign office in Columbus, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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