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Stella Creasy: “Government’s job is to crowdsource, not crowd-control”

So what does technology offer social justice?

Anthony Painter, director of institutional reform, RSA; Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow and shadow minister for business, innovation and skills; Anoosh Chakelian, acting editor of The Staggers and chair (New Statesman); Verity Harding, Public Policy Manager, Google UK, at the New Statesman Labour 2014 fringe event in partnership with Google: “Can a Progressive Britain Be Downloaded? What Does Tech Offer Social Justice?”

“Digital asylum-seekers” is Stella Creasy’s striking and damning characterisation of governments past and present. With a nod to the writing of Don Tapscott1 and others on the division between digital natives and digital exiles, the shadow business minister argues that policymakers often misunderstand their role in the new economy.

Speaking at a New Statesman/Google fringe event at last month’s Labour party conference – “Can a Progressive Britain Be Downloaded? What Does Tech Offer Social Justice?” – Creasy said: “If I hear another person tell me that what we need is a specialist digital adviser [I’ll scream]. That’s like having a specialist telephone adviser.” The role of governments, she said, is to “crowdsource”, not “crowd-control”; to understand digital not as a technology but as a way of working; and to create the environment in which “creativity can be unleashed”.

It was a theme taken up by Creasy’s fellow panellist Anthony Painter, director of institutional reform at the RSA, who said that governments should not try to usurp a vibrant digital ecosystem. Instead, they should “provide a steer”. As Painter said: “Every age has its technological change that throws up opportunities and threats and it’s up to us how we respond to it.”

One way the government can respond is by enhancing the digital skills of the population as whole, and not just the privileged few. According to the Tinder Foundation2, an organisation that promotes digital inclusion in the UK, 11 million of us lack the skills to take advantage of the internet’s promise.

“If you are going to access the type of careers that enable you to be socially mobile then you are going to have to have a degree of digital competence,” said Painter.

Verity Harding, Public Policy Manager at Google UK, believes that governments can play an “incredibly positive role” and she challenged politicians to create the environment that will deliver the most digitally literate society for Britain by 2020. “It’s really no different to opportunity generally. We all believe that every kid needs to be able to read and write,” she said. “Being digitally literate is the third skill people will need.”

Harding said it was not just altruism that had led Google to this conclusion. “We want the greatest pool of talent. We want the best engineers. And unless every child out there can learn those skills, that pool of talent is massively restricted.”

Creasy added: “We know that two-thirds of those who aren’t digitally literate are from poorer backgrounds. We should see that in the same way as we see basic GCSE results because [children’s] potential and opportunity to succeed in life is stunted as a result.”

The internet both demands these skills and provides a platform to enhance other talents, Painter noted. “One of the biggest learning platforms today is YouTube,” he said. “Whether it is learning to play the piano or the guitar, learning how to bake an aubergine or do DIY, it’s on YouTube. The question then is what happens after that – how do you engage with learning communities? How do you then demonstrate that competence in a work environment? Maybe it’s time for a big, open institutional platform where people can feed in their skills and there is accreditation to demonstrate that.”

And maybe there is a role for governments in creating that platform. Another way our political institutions might engage, suggested a member of the audience – John Slinger, strategic communications consultant and chair of Pragmatic Radicalism – would be by introducing electronic voting for the smartphone generation. Neither Painter nor Creasy was convinced.

“I’m not sure voting should be the primary measure of engagement,” Painter said. “I’d be more interested in getting an understanding of the kind of dialogue young people use and I’d imagine quite a bit is issues-based.” He cited research carried out with college students after the London riots of 2011 which found sophisticated levels of political understanding.

“Young people have always been political,” Creasy said. “What they are not doing is engaging in traditional forms of politics.

“We miss the bigger problem here if we think it’s about process. Fundamentally, it is a question about purpose. We should experiment with new forms of voting but I don’t think it’s going to make a single new person vote. Fundamentally, what’s going to get people to vote is a sense of why, rather than how we do it.”

Creasy, who is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour) in east London, reserved some of her criticism for politics closer to home. She said the left needs to rethink its approach to digital – and that means embracing competition as well as collaboration. “Sometimes on the left we haven’t understood the interaction between the two. That is, you can create a springboard from collaboration and then, with competition, you expand on creativity. What we have to acknowledge is that it is always disruptive.”

Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow and shadow minister for business, innovation and skills, with Anoosh Chakelian, acting editor of The Staggers and the event chair (New Statesman)

An example of that disruption is Uber, the smartphone app-based taxi service. Policymakers, not just here but around the world, are struggling to balance the rights of this new entrant with incumbent taxi operators and to make sense of it all in the context of existing regulations that don’t appear fit for purpose.

“No one is saying we don’t need rules in this new economy,” Creasy said, “but we need new rules that make sense in the world to come.”

“Can a Progressive Britain Be Downloaded? What Does Tech Offer Social Justice?” was convened by the New Statesman and hosted by Google in Manchester on 22 September 2014.

 

Members of the audience at the New Statesman Labour fringe event in partnership with Google.
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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories