Jeremy Browne speaks in New Delhi while Foreign Office minister in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Browne: Lib Dem leadership contest must include free market candidate

Lib Dem MP and former minister says "It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has". 

Ahead of the Lib Dem conference (they're going last rather than first this year due to the Scottish referendum), I've interviewed Jeremy Browne, one of the most party's most interesting and intellectually confident MPs. Since his surprise sacking as a Home Office minister last year, Browne has used his time well, first writing Race Plan, a radical manifesto for free-market liberalism, and now Why Vote Liberal Democrat 2015.  In the latter he argues that the Lib Dems must embrace "360-degree liberalism" if they are to flourish, championing freedom in both the economic and the social spheres. 

"If you talk to Lib Dem audiences about economic liberalism, which for me is the great global phenomenon of our time, and increased trade, competition and marketisation, Lib Dems get nervous that this will be seen as sounding too close to uncaring 1980s Thatcherism.

"As a result of that, we shy away from having a 360-degree liberal offer. We have a partial liberal offer. It reinforces the sense that we are hesitant about our own liberalism; we don’t follow through on each aspect of our offer." He argues that the rise of individualism and the decline of deference, most notably among the young, means that there is a "bigger marketplace" than ever for a programme of this kind (his policy proposals include the establishment of profit-making free schools, greater use of the private sector in the NHS, and a reduction in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p). 

Given the conviction and articulacy with which Browne states his views I naturally asked him whether he would stand for the party leadership when a vacancy arises. "This is where politicians are meant to give some sort of clever and evasive answer," he laughingly replied when I raised the subject. "Let me give you a genuine answer, rather than trying to give you a clever answer."

He went on to tell me that there were "three broad options for the party".

Browne on the three kinds of Lib Dem leadership candidate 

1. The protest candidate 

The first, he said, was to "slump back into being a protest party" ("the comfort zone of tweeting about student sit-ins"). He added: "I think that would be a real let down if we did that, and would be an acceptance by us that we were not willing to be a bigger, more responsible party, so I’m very strongly against that strand, it may not identify itself in those terms but I think that may be seductive to some people in the party." 

It is not hard to see that Browne has Tim Farron, the party's left-leaning president, profilic tweeter, and the activists' favourite to become leader, in mind. 

2. The continuity candidate

The second option, he said, was represented by "a continuity, steady-as-she-goes strand", which believes "we can just continue to find a way to navigate around some of the pinch point moments that parties face, and muddle along." Again, it is not hard to imagine which likely candidate Browne is thinking of: Danny Alexander (who has been positioning himself to stand).

When I put Farron and Alexander's names to Browne, he replied: "Now you're being mischievous," which, I note, is not a denial. 

3. The complete liberal candidate

The third option, he said, was to embrace "360-degree liberalism" (economic and social liberalism) and to be "the liberal voice in the liberal age". When I asked him whether he would personally ensure that the party is offered this choice, he told me: "I don’t have massive personal ambitions. It’s a big sacrifice being the leader of a political party." But he added: "It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has. It’s actually essential that it’s one that the party adopts but it can’t adopt it if it doesn’t have that choice. Now, if someone else can do that better than me, that’s great."

Lib Dem sources suggest that Browne has David Laws, the schools minister and another figure from the party's free market wing, in mind. But Laws, who remains tainted by his forced resignation from the cabinet in 2010, may choose not to stand. When I asked Browne how he would respond if another economic liberal failed to come forward, he replied: "We'll see". 

At this stage, it would be imprudent for him to say anything else. But if no one else answers the call, this liberal prophet will surely take the chance to preach to the unconverted.

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 back 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 department 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.