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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.
Photo: Getty
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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia