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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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