In this week’s New Statesman: Steven Poole on the rise of Big Data

PLUS: Rafael Behr on the angry white guys tearing the Tories apart.

Cover Story: The Digital Panopticon

In this week’s cover story Steven Poole looks at the promise of “Big Data” – that we will be saved from our manifold dilemmas so long as we measure the world. Google Flu Trends can track the spread of an influenza epidemic, Google Translate’s corpus of phrases and likely translations far surpasses all others, and aircraft and other complex engineering projects can be made more reliable once components are able wirelessly to phone home information about how they are functioning. But how useful is big data in the first place? And should we be wary of the consequences?

. . . as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier point out in their useful recent book, Big Data: “Big data itself is founded on theory.” And once you’ve manufactured data with instruments that operate according to certain theories, you then need to analyse it theoretically. At the Large Hadron Collider, subatomic smashing generates a million gigabytes of data every second. Automated systems keep just a millionth of this for analysis (discarding the rest based on theories), but the bit-heap is still Brobdingnagian. And it needs to be analysed according to still other theories before scientists will understand what is going on. Until then, the data itself is just inscrutable numbers. Raw data is not knowledge. According to IBM, 90 per cent of the world’s extant data has been created in the past two years. Unless I missed something important, that is not because the human race has very rapidly become much wiser.

Rafael Behr: He was the future once – David Cameron and the struggle to be modern

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as the leader of the Conservatives than any of his three most recent predecessors put together, writes Rafael Behr. Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in charge of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is doing none of these things:

The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition . . .

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges supporters to “take our country back”.

What’s more, the Tories have miscalculated the Ukip vote. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?” Not very many, actually, according to the polls.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task.

David Blanchflower: This was King and Osborne’s lost decade

In the Economics Column this week our economics editor, David Blanchflower, berates the joint record of George Osborne and the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, saying he “nearly fell over laughing” when King announced at the press conference for his valedictory inflation report that “a recovery is in sight”.

“I would be surprised to see growth of more than 1 per cent this year and next,” Blanchflower predicts. “This looks like King and George Osborne’s lost decade.”

So just what does King mean by “recovery”, and is there any merit to the Chancellor’s assertion that the economy is “healing”?

There is rather mixed evidence from business surveys: the purchasing managers’ surveys showed some pick-up, but the Bank of England agents’ surveys suggest little improvement. The EU’s Economic Sentiment Index, which combines consumer and business surveys, fell again in April. The labour market continues to weaken. Underemployment is rising again; there has been a further surge in the number of people who are part-time but want full-time jobs . . . It is unlikely that, with such uncertainty in the air and shrinking wages, consumers are heading for a spending spree. The patient is still in intensive care.


The Diary: Jonathan Smith on the darker side of Cornwall, tailgaiting in Virginia and Elvis’s top half

David Herman: Why is television still so white?

Letter from Serbia: Fiona Sampson takes a journey to the heart of the Balkans

Hugh Purcell on the New Statesman’s past: Fellow-Travellers at the NS, shadowy MI6 placements and the senior staffer Gaitskell’s wife said was “Stalin dressed as a nun”

Laurie Penny applauds the bravery of the suffragettes

Ed Smith: In cricket, as in Britian, the north-south divide is as deep as ever

David Puttnam: What makes us human?

In the Critics

This week, Hedley Twidle, the winner of the 2012 Bodley Head and Financial Times Essay Prize, considers the latest travelogue by Paul TherouxThe Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola. Theroux, Twidle writes, “is unwilling to let go of his African fantasies” and the result is disastrous. “He mints generalisations and insults at such a clip that they soon begin to outstrip even the most gifted parodist.” Twidle concludes: “Bankrupt in more ways than one, this is a book I would recommend as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre.”


  • Colin MacCabe reviews Stephen Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter. “Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.”
  • George Eaton praises the modesty and wisdom of Andrew Adonis, which shine through in 5 Days In May, his book about the coalition negotiations. “As a long-standing believer in a ‘progressive coalition’, Adonis felt this failure [of the Lib-Lab negotations] more keenly than most.”
  • Alice O’Keeffe on the limitations of nature writing, as revealed in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, Holloway. And Leo Robson praises All That Is, the latest novel by the87-year-old American writer, James Salter. “Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to helpeless.”

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide