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There's a revolution out there - and Labour must be part of it

Re-ordering the new industrial revolution needs a labour movement.

I’ll confess I was very flattered to be asked to appear at the Hay Festival. I didn’t realise my musical talent had been so apparent in my parliamentary speeches...

When I heard it was for the philosophy stream I was more intimidated than flattered.

After all I am a politician, and also an engineer.

Two of my favourite philosophers, John Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, both had a negative attitude to engineering, seeing it as mechanistic rather than existential.

De Beauvoir once wrote: “He was living like an engineer in a mechanical world. No wonder he had become dry as a stone.”, while Sartre once said: “The dreary world of means, and of the means of means, was left to the engineers.”

And Heidegger, not a fave philosopher but an interesting one, wasn’t exactly enamoured of technology either…

But I am very glad Hay thought I could contribute something.

After all philosophy is often the locomotive of revolutions, and it is a revolution that we need.

Now I say we need a revolution that’s in the full knowledge that we already live in revolutionary times: work is changing. Production is changing. The means of production are changing. Capital is changing. Climate is changing.  Communication is changing. What we consider value and how we value it, is changing.

It’s a revolution, but so far the only heads on the block are working class jobs.It’s a revolution in which the powerful are taking power.

Georges Danton, architect of the French Revolution, said that “in revolutions authority remains with the greatest scoundrels”. But then, he was executed by his fellow revolutionaries.

Well we want to overturn that precedent, by having a democratic digital revolution.

In calling for a digital revolution, I am of course criticising the status quo. What sort of revolutionary would I be if I were not? But I don’t want you to think I’m criticising technology.

I am a tech evangelist; that is why I spent twenty years working around the world as an electrical engineer building the mobile, fixed and wireless networks which now form the internet.

I am a digiphile, but digital power has not even begun to be distributed fairly.

That happens. Writing developed over three thousand years ago, but it wasn’t until 1970 that 50 per cent of the world could be described as literate.  

And in the week that the Bible was finally published in an Emoji translation – yes that really had to happen – it’s worth remembering that the initial revolutionary impact of literacy – and the reason many learnt to read - was the ability to read the Bible for yourself, and then make your own decisions about eternal salvation. Did Christ really say it was for sale with the Pope as intermediary?

So reading, as opposed to being preached at, freed people to make their own decisions about the meaning of life.  I believe digital can have an equally existential impact on our lives today.

But right now it is very much the case that people are still being preached at, told what to do with their technology. Worse, told what technology to do what with, and told what it means for them.

But that is going to change, I hope.

I am hopeful because I believe we are at several tipping points today, and the result could be an avalanche.

When I lived in Washington DC and worked in Virginia every day I’d drive out there along the George Washington Highway and I’d pass the George W Bush Centre for Intelligence and I’d smile every time! But it was George’s Defence Secretary, Rumsfeld, who most famously spoke about known unknowns, known knowns and unknown unknowns

I always think that what is known is like a geographic empire, as it grows the frontier with the unknown also becomes larger. So we know more what we don’t know.

You could say the known unknowns become greater. There are also different ways of knowing and with technology the barrier between knowing and experiencing is lowered.

Take that image of the little boy drowned on a beach in Turkey Now we ‘knew’ that people were drowning in that desperate attempt to cross into Europe. We knew it was the reality of many lives, just as we ‘know’  that starvation and disease are the reality for many of our fellow human beings.

But when that knowledge was made real for us in Europe through that image on our screens then something changed, something tipped and suddenly Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome migrants to Germany became heroic and not foolhardy.

We have a long way to go still before we achieve a real understanding of the lives of ‘others’  but Aylan Kurdi shows that something known in an abstract sense but unknown experientially can achieve a kind of virtual reality in our lives through technology– and that authenticity can drive change.

And we know that virtual reality is only at the very beginning of its technological evolution. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the search for authenticity of Heidegger and other philosophers was finally to be realised through technology?

In any case there is real hope that through technology, through digital, we will have great understanding of each other and each others’ lives.

And yet, there are reasons to be less hopeful.

Think about the narrowness of those who are curating your experiences, determining what you know and how you know it.A lot of tech’s assumptions and alignments are basically to young, male rich people.

That’s the demographic which has designed the hardware, the operating system, the applications and the business models that they depend upon. Why does that matter?

A basic understanding of  statistics – which by the way is an essential part of any decent mathematical or technical education – teaches you that you have to choose a representative sample, with the same level of diversity as in the population it’s trying to represent.

In the past few years more than half of smartphone sales have been outside of the US and Europe, and it’s predicted that future growth in smartphone sales will be driven mostly by Asia and Africa.

Yet all these tech trained people apparently think it’s acceptable to design our futures in a monocultural and entirely unrepresentative environments.

It’s not only tech of course.  Half of cinema ticket sales in the US go to what are counterintuitively called minorities and yet the Academy Awards were all white. So how can we ensure a more democratic revolution, when it’s not the people who are driving it?

Well let’s look at another revolution. 

I live a few hundred yards from where George Stephenson built the rocket locomotive, which was literally the power in that first and so far only Northern Powerhouse. As an engineer who grew up the industrial North and now spends a lot of time politicking in the service sector South I often think of that industrial revolution and how it changed the world.  Mainly I believe for the better, though perhaps, as Zhou Enlai might have said, it’s too early to tell. Certainly there are now many more of us living better for longer. The industrial revolution gave rise to huge economic growth.

But the benefits were not shared, at first. There were decades of unregulated exploitation of the poor by the rich, the weak by the strong.  It took organisation and social activism, mainly in the labour movement, often at great personal and community cost, to get some of that growth shared. To take nine year olds out of cotton mills and put them in school, for example. That kick started the role of the state as a positive agent of change.

As Mariana Mazzucato points out in the Entrepreneurial State, “the history of our own development shows that governments should not be shy to get involved and take risks to create innovation that is fairly distributed”.

The challenge now is not to wait 100 years for the rewards of this digital revolution to be shared, to make sure we do not leave a generation as the modern day equivalent of cheap and expendable child labour, going down digital pits and cleaning virtual looms.

We should never forget that while change is inevitable progress isn’t.

What does that mean for the future economy?

It is often described as the sharing economy. It sounds very cuddly. All of us on a patchwork sofa, sharing a nice cup of tea. Or it’s called the gig economy – we’re all creative artists enjoying the freedom to perform…

I prefer to call it the new intermediaries economy. Not as cuddly or cool but more accurate.

Back in the nineties we often talked about how digital would disrupt business models.  As Director of Strategy for a tech startup I had to learn the lovely word disintermediation to describe how the power of the internet would take out all those middle men – and occasionally middle women – reducing costs and liberating value.

We would not need travel agents or estate agents or any ‘agency’ any more. We would be our own agents. And the internet did disintermediate. Travel agents are gone, estate agents are under threat and newsagents make their money out of alcohol sales.

But what is not talked of is that it has created a whole new set of intermediaries. And they make money out of you.

When you get into an Uber cab the driver is not sharing her car with you, she is selling you space in it.  And Uber is the intermediary. Just as Facebook is the intermediary as you sell your data to advertisers in return for optimal likes, or Google, selling your click-throughs in return for the perfect search. The fact that you do not see yourself as a Facebook or Google customer, does not stop them turning a buck out of you.

Just as the old ones did, the new intermediaries make their money by adding value to a product – and that product is you! Indeed I guess you could argue that turning the customer into the product is the ultimate act of disintermediation.

And what the new intermediaries have in common is their platform network economics. Now as a network engineer, I know that networks tend to concentrate power. That’s why electricity, telecoms and rail networks tend to be in the public sector or heavily, heavily regulated.

But networks can also decentralise and distribute power, literally and metaphorically, flattening relationships. Think the Arab Spring, theyworkforyou, citizen science or 38 degrees.  So which is it?  Are these new intermediaries an opportunity to concentrate or flatten power relationships? Is Uber exploiting drivers or freeing them from the high fees and barriers to entry of the taxi cab sector?

Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the Oxford Internet Institute, tells us we need to lose the obsession with what the individual is doing and instead think of the process, and whether everyone involved has access to justice.

Instead of being obsessed with the individual Uber driver or Google searcher we need to look at the system.

Tom Chatfield, the author and tech commentators, says that “technology connects us to each other as never before, and in doing so makes explicit the degree to which we are defined and anticipated by others: the ways in which our ideas and identities do not simply belong to us, but are part of a larger human ebb and flow.”

Now that emphasis on our collective identities and actions and our access to justice reminds me of another movement.

The labour movement.

And here’s where the different themes I have covered come together – because yes there is an over-arching narrative.  Re-ordering the new industrial revolution needs a labour movement.

The labour movement was born to redistribute the rewards of the first industrial system when it became apparent that taking on the actions of employers one by one or the concerns of  individual workers one wasn’t going to cut it.

Now when working people criticise technological change they tend to be called Luddites. That’s a great way of shutting you up. Who wants to be a Luddite? Well, the labour movement was driven by Luddites.

In the Making of the English Working Class, E P Thompson says "I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity."

Luddites were a part of the emerging labour movement which saw that their labour, and therefore their lives, were being stripped of decency through inhumane and unfair industrialisation.  Through direct action, yes, breaking looms and machines but also through organisation, promoting workers education, public libraries, and empowerment they helped inspire debate and negotiate  how the new system should work.

So our job is again to break open the looms of the current day industrial revolution.

Reveal the power relationships driven by the new intermediaries and hidden by sharing and gigging slogans.  And then to empower the citizen worker consumer in these new power relationships.

These are political questions and pretending they’re not political, pretending they are just market issues, is a bit of a fiction. Tom Watson has already spoken on the need for a progressive response to technological change and Jeremy Corbyn launched Labour’s Workplace 2020 initiative.

We need the labour movement to drive a revolution fit for the digital age. I believe there are five major battlefields around which our movement needs to mobilise.

Firstly, Identity – who controls your identity and why isn’t it you?

I’ve had a really interesting series of exchanges with Google for them to explain why downloading an app from Google Play requires a Google account. They use it to identify and control your device. Did you know that? Do you know who else is using your identity and why?

Secondly, who controls your data and why isn’t it you?  In recent exchange with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change she told me that smart meter data would be owned by the energy companies. Good luck with controlling your soon to be smart home then.

Thirdly, whose algorithm is it anyway? This week a number of newspapers reported that Uber knows when your battery is dying and that its analysis has also told it that when your battery is dying you’re more likely to accept higher - or surge – prices.

“We absolutely don’t use that to push you a higher surge price, but it’s an interesting psychological fact of human behaviour.” They said.

Uber chooses – apparently – not to integrate this correlation into its algorithm. But you have to trust them on that one because the algorithm is secret, just as the algorithms which brings a certain page to the top of Google search or a certain face to the top of a webdating site are secret. On the last one, I am reliably informed that one well known dating site has optimised its dating algorithm for short term relationships in the knowledge that that optimises your subscription rate to the site. 

How do you feel about that?

Fourthly, back to that Uber driver.  The labour movement put employees in a more powerful position in labour relationships. The Uber driver is certainly not in a position of power in relationship to Uber.   

How do we change that?

And finally digital inclusion. Digital democracy without digital inclusion is a return to an 18th Century view of democracy as amongst to a narrow economic elite. Well the Tories are certainly making a success of that!

We need a democratic revolution and we need it now.

Before the system hardens and solidifies in ways which can’t be undone. Or at least not peacefully.

That’s why we believe the Digital Economy Bill now passing through parliament, should be addressing this, instead of a haphazard collection of things the government think they can get through without annoying Brexiters.

That’s why the labour movement will be at the forefront of this revolution.

We must not miss our chance to make the future fairer. As Alexis de Tocqueville said “the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” 

What is the quality of functions that the system now allows for, your data owned by others, your experiences curated by others, your identity defined and controlled by others and you a product?

What Labour must do is not reject the future but negotiate it.  And in so doing we will be building a better future for us all.

This article is adapted from Chi Onwurah’s talk at the Hay Festival

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy. 

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.