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Andrew Marr: Why the pundits got it wrong - and what the parties should do next

As the media try to make sense of the 2015 general election, Andrew Marr explains why predictions were so far off the mark.

As we try to sift the meanings of the 2015 general election, it’s worth beginning with a fundamental but far too little-discussed problem for political journalism: how the hell do we know what we think we know? What value – if any – do commentators, set apart from the professional politicians, actually bring? It’s not surprising that most of the time we commentators don’t like to talk about this. This spring, we really must.

I pick up my information from four sources, I realise, all of them suspect. The first is the politicians; during this campaign I spoke regularly to the parties, and to old friends across the political spectrum. The party HQs proved to be either deluded, or lying: I was told again and again by Labour that its ground operation was superb and its numbers, particularly in the north-west of England and the Midlands (where the party was slaughtered) were very strong indeed. The Liberal Democrats assured me that Tory talk of destroying them in the English south-west was malicious and ridiculous. (Plainly, it wasn’t.) The Tories said they were doing fine, you know, fine-ish, but never sounded hugely confident.

So much for going to the top. More useful were politicians from all sides I’ve known for years. A series of experienced Labour people sounded pretty wobbly – I should have spent more time thinking about that and less about the messages from the centre. Some Conservative MPs, notably George Osborne, seemed much more confident than Cameron HQ.

The second source, and one that dominated everybody’s day-to-day thinking, was the polling. The pollsters didn’t get everything wrong: they picked up the huge Scottish story. Then again, anybody who stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and bought a latte would have picked that up. But they were massively out on the main story. My deep frustration is that this tilted the whole conversation about politics – the reporting, and therefore the pressure the reporting placed on the politicians. To be specific, if we had known how close the Liberal Democrats were coming to wipeout, there might have been speculation about what that would mean. Everybody ignored this. Had we known how badly Labour was doing, there would have been much more pressure on Ed Miliband over his main economic message. There wasn’t nearly enough.

My third main source was the rest of the commentariat, this time including the self-appointed commentariat of Twitter. That’s a big range of voices. But during an election campaign, people retreat into their ideological bunkers. There are some who ask pene­trating questions, keep their heads tilted sceptically, and are worth following, but by and large journalists listening to other journalists only produces an echo chamber of lazy, received opinion, big on the volume, an ear-splitting background noise.

This leads me to the final source of information, always ridiculed and yet the one that proved most accurate and that I wish I had spent more time attending to – anecdote and random conversation. That is plainly dangerous: we are all prisoners of our own geographical and class location, however much we think we are in the swim. One of the advantages of having a televised face and jug ears, however, is that people come up to you the whole time and tell you, unprompted and unstoppably, what they think. As I was doing my daily walk to the shops, or sidling off to my local for a pint of IPA, I was buttonholed again and again.

What people wanted to say, in my part of London, could be broken down into two big themes. First, they hated the idea of a minority Labour government backed by the SNP. Almost immediately that this became a leading Tory theme, I was picking it up on the street. After the first two weeks of a Tory campaign focused on the economy generally and the uselessness of Ed Miliband, and which seemed to me to have been from their point of view wasted time, plainly the Conservatives had found something that was cutting through.

The second theme was that Labour apparently “hated” the self-employed, people running or working in small businesses, and anyone who’d had any kind of success. I’m going to come back to this, but it struck me at the time. A painter and decorator, for instance, who employs half a dozen others, walked across the street to say: “I can’t vote Labour. I work bloody hard. I’m the kind of person they despise . . .” As with the anti-SNP reaction, you ignore a single comment but when you hear the same kind of thing dozens of times, you know that something is going on.

***

Now this isn’t the complete sum total of what was going on in my head during the campaign. I’ve been covering these things since 1983, and echoes of John Major in 1992 reverberated. But note that, compared to his open and confrontational street oratory back then, in among the jeering, the leaders this time were sanitised and surrounded by pre-selected audiences. Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, put himself through it in Scotland; but apart from that, it seems to me that all the money spent by the broadcasters and newspapers on sending their correspondents to join Cameron, Miliband and Clegg on their bus tours was wasted. No election is just like any other. Having been around for a long time is no guarantee of wisdom.

Other sources will be more respected next time. The betting market wasn’t great – money was pouring on to Ed Miliband right at the last minute, by which time he’d already lost – but the gilt markets seemed to know what was going on. Number crunchers using historical voting data did pretty well. And intriguingly, those in the parties who had scanned postal voting returns were also in on the secret.

Finally, I’ve interviewed many dozens of politicians many times. I ought, therefore, to know where their weaknesses are – though that doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing what the public thinks. But if there is a logical problem obvious to me, presumably it is obvious to millions of ­other people. The ever more glazed and convoluted attempts by the two Eds to avoid saying that they had overspent while in office is a good example.

There was a perfectly rational way of dealing with this. They could have said: “Look, the overspending was relatively minor in historic terms and was supported by almost everybody at the time. And be very careful of describing the building of new hospitals, schools and nurseries as ‘profligate’ or ‘waste’: our alleged overspending has given Britain places where children are currently learning and their grandparents are having heart operations. It’s not like blowing too much money on your credit card in B&Q.

“At the time, none of us knew – not you, not the government, not David Cameron or George Osborne – that an obscure housing crisis in Middle America was going to bring down the entire banking system.”

They could have said that. They didn’t.

Why not? Because, had they engaged in the conversation seriously, they would have had to go on to say something like: “However, given what we know now, do we wish we had spent a little less during the good times? Of course we do.” And, true or not, they thought that the Conservative media would have translated this into: “Ed admits, ‘Yes, the crash was our fault.’”

That seems to me to have been a huge tactical mistake on the Labour side. The party should have engaged in the argument, and made its case, not unreasonable, long before the proper election campaign started. As I have written here before, by allowing the Conservatives to set that narrative they handed David Cameron a huge weapon, which he used during April and May almost every day.

There were big mistakes on the Tory side, too, I thought. I was flabbergasted when Cameron and Osborne suddenly found a minimum of £8bn, and perhaps a lot more, for the NHS right at the last minute. It seemed to me to blow a hole in their “uncosted spending commitments” attack on Labour. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter, because voters presumably thought that ­Labour would always spend and borrow more than the Tories, whatever anybody said. Still, it was a heck of a risk.

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But the biggest issue that emerged during interviews was, as I found on the street, the SNP surge. I have been studying and writing about the Scottish National Party since I was in my twenties. I wish I had been back in Scotland much more, and earlier, but I’ve been up there quite a lot recently, working and visiting family. So I know that the SNP is not the Maoist threat Middle England cowers from. Among its new MPs are former Conservatives, business people, all types. It’s true that its new 110,000 membership contains many on the hard left who have made a lot of noise, but the party is a complex phenomenon.

Still, the “watch my lips, no deals” rebuttals by Ed Miliband were always going to be difficult. He might have ruled out a coalition and a formal confidence-and-supply arrangement, but the numbers dictated that a minority Labour government – the best he could hope for – would have to rely on SNP acquiescence at best week by week.

Now, I have no hard evidence for what follows, but I don’t believe that English ­voters’ hostility to an SNP-influenced outcome was anti-Scottish. I think it was the combination of the thought of a relatively weak government, which would have to negotiate its way through its programme, with the anti-Trident and anti-austerity messages of the SNP, that spooked much of Middle England.

Don’t forget that all the voters who do not want Trident, and were against austerity, weren’t up for grabs anyway: they were ­already committed, presumably, to Labour or the Green Party. So a Scottish National Party programme, crafted to appeal to Glasgow Govan and Dundee, didn’t go down so well with soft Tory voters and Liberal Democrats in Cirencester or the Peak District. Quelle surprise!

That, for me, was the story of this election campaign. Looking ahead, what lessons can we draw from it?

Living in London, I am very cautious about trying to predict what is going to happen in Scotland next. But the following things seem almost self-evident. First, to have any chance of revival, Scottish Labour has to separate itself from the party south of the border. It has to begin again, unionist but with its own head office; back to the party’s origins. This may not work, either. Second, in politics, winning brings new problems and winning big brings bigger new problems. Nicola Sturgeon now not only has to negotiate with somebody she never thought she’d have to deal with, and who has the authority of a big election win, she has to manage the enormous expectations of what looked like, in effect, a Scottish revolution. I couldn’t fit into her shoes in a million years; but I’m glad I don’t have to try.

As to the shattered English left, I go back first to all those conversations about Labour not being for “people like me”. Labour politics works when it is, in effect, an alliance between the bulk of people working in private companies, big and small, and those on the margins. Now, if Labour chooses to forget about people on benefits, those on poverty wages, and the huge inequities caused by a super-rich global class, then it ceases to have any purpose. But it simply can’t get itself into a position again where shopkeepers, tradesmen and all those who want to better themselves think Labour “hates” them.

I don’t suppose this was something that Ed Miliband or those around him ever set out to achieve. It was more about tone, and where they came from, and what their own instincts were. Britain is brimming with relatively affluent (or at least comfortable) non-socialists who have a strong sense of community and social altruism. They support homelessness projects run by churches, they back local campaigns, they spend spare income not on bigger cars but on Oxfam appeals. They are good people. They just happen to be outside the immediate reach of the state. Labour can sometimes give the impression that only those working in the public sector or those on benefits are virtuous and admirable. This is politically lethal.

***

Is that more important, or less important, than confronting the “Blue Labour” questions of immigration, low pay and embattled trade unionism? I don’t know – but reaching out to the majority isn’t a luxury.

So, Labour has a cultural problem to resolve. It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It is vastly more important than who the next leader is. Over the next few years, we will see, I suspect, little real sign of a Labour advance in Scotland – the defeat is so profound that it will take many years to recover – while in England boundary changes further entrench the Conservatives. Unless Labour has the courage and imagination to reform itself completely, it has no chance of recovery.

Democracy is a pendulum. Not even the biggest and most unexpected victories last; in fact, they contain the seeds of the next defeat. Yet this assumes and requires that the defeated parties learn hard lessons. The Tories’ biggest problem ahead isn’t the EU referendum. It isn’t even the relationship between London and Scotland – federal Britain is taking shape before our eyes. No, it is their relationship with big money, the global financial system that remains unstable and often incompetent. David Cameron is a more sophisticated and flexible Tory leader than many understand. But I don’t see him trying to fix that problem, and that leaves Conservatism vulnerable.

Ought Labour and the Liberal Democrats to forget their differences and try to merge? Probably not: they have different philosophies and those differences matter. But it would be a good, useful and salutary thing for both of them to contemplate the possibility. A big election defeat ought to shatter old ways of thinking. It’s important not to waste a good defeat. I have spent the past few days doing two things – sleeping and worrying about how I do my job.

Defeated politicians, as well as humbled journalists, could do worse.

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is his novel, “Head of State” (Fourth Estate)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.