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Labour's Crisis

Labour is in the middle of its gravest crisis in 30 years. It needs to rediscover the radicalism tha

The Labour Party has faced two periods of real crisis since 1900 and now stands on the verge of a third. The first followed the crash of 1929, when the second Labour administration collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald formed the National Government. The second came with the party's defeat in 1979, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, or Thatcherism, and Labour's possible eclipse by a new third party in the early 1980s. If the decline in Labour's fortunes since 1997 continues, a third crisis will occur after next year's election. It took nearly 15 years for Labour to return to power after the first two crises and the resulting election defeats of 1931 and 1983. The stakes could not be higher.

We have lost many millions of voters since 1997. We have lost hundreds of thousands of members. We have become reviled by younger generations that view us as the party of the Establishment, war and insecurity. Our orthodoxy has defeated our radicalism. We speak a desiccated language of targets; our story, our essential ethic, has been lost on the altar of the focus group. We have retreated into what is essentially a Hobbesian utilitarianism, which considers self-interest as the only guiding principle. Alan Milburn recently described our goal as being to equip people to "earn and to own"; aspiration is reduced to a notion of acquisition. Materialism is all we have; we have lost the bright hope of building a different society.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once said that "hope is the basic ingredient of all vitality". At such moments of crisis and uncertainty, Labour often turns to its founding figure, Keir Hardie, for hope. But he has become a myth rather than a historical figure. We tend to look to him for reassurance, rather than to ask awkward questions. Hardie inspired total devotion. On his death, he was described as the "Member for Humanity"; Sylvia Pankhurst (a friend and onetime lover) simply saw him as the "greatest human being of our time". He was worshipped among the grass roots. Some considered him, literally, to be a prophet.

At the same time, however, many thought him an extremist, impossible, unreliable and ill-disciplined. T D Benson of the Independent Labour Party said Hardie was, "by his very nature, incapable of working with a party". At times he was isolated, and even resembled an outcast. His socialism belonged to a larger canvas than the day-to-day parliamentary grind. As his biographer, the historian Kenneth Morgan, states: "For a man of Hardie's poetic, intuitive temperament, this unheroic, constructive labour was not enough. Beyond the day-to-day tactics there was a profound political, moral and emotional cause to be defined and fought for."

It was this crusade and its associated idealism that inspired such hope and vitality among the party at large. With Hardie, it was not the detail of the policy or programme that was Labour's true ideal; it was the "creed of fraternity and equality" - what type of society it sought, rather than the tactical calculus of Westminster. Certainly, Hardie was a man of contradictions. He was born into the working class, but he was never truly a part of it. Indeed, he didn't properly fit in anywhere in society. He was never a social conservative, but bohemian in his dress and a dedicated supporter of feminism and Welsh­nationalism - the red dragon and the red flag. His nonconformism made him a brilliant alliance-maker and political pragmatist.

From his return to the House of Commons in 1900, Hardie became, as Morgan describes it, "the prophet of radical socialism in its highly distinctive Merthyr form". This was a composite socialism emerging out of the distinct arc of Merthyr history, of early Chartism and the 1868 election of the pacifist Henry Richard, of the trades council movement in Merthyr and Aberdare, of the miners and the 1898 six-month strike, of its Christian traditions with its "social gospel" and, later, of the ILP. Cumulatively, it forged a non-doctrinal, working-class culture and movement; an ethical socialism that owed little to science - of neither right nor left - but much to the politics of progressive alliance.

What can this Hardie of contradictions teach us today? Like Robin Cook much later, he was never a "Labour man", at home in the party. He understood that a party must give shape to a class and a class must create a party in its image - and that this involves an interdependence of feeling and thought. In contrast to the muscular secularism growing in the modern Labour Party, he expressed this in religious terms borrowed from Tennyson: "Ring out the darkness of the land,/ Ring in the Christ that is to be."

He spoke in an almost messianic language to the people, and mirrored back to them a sense of their value and their capacity to change society. He gave them esteem, confidence and belief. In return, they gave him love and loyalty. David Farrell, an ILP member, wrote to him: "I have more love and reverence for you than I have for my own father."

Yet Hardie was much more than a great communicator. He was also a great political strategist, willing to make alliances to advance the goal of working-class emancipation. His socialism was never rigid, doctrinal or dogmatic. By 1903, he had come around to forming an electoral coalition with the Liberals, with the ILP as its backbone. Later, as party leader, Hardie worked with Sir Charles Dilke - unofficial chair of the "social radicals" on the Liberal side - on labour issues. Even at the two elections of 1910, he maintained support for the alliance with the Liberals. Yet by 1912 he had badly fallen out with them, following the brutal industrial disputes and state responses at Tonypandy and Aberdare. His conditional, contingent relationship with progressive liberalism was a hallmark of his tactical brilliance.

Although we celebrate Hardie as the founder of the Labour Party, he also operated in the space between competing variants of liberalism: its radical, individualistic strands and a more collectivist social liberalism. A similar debate is emerging in the Labour Party today. Thinkers such as Will Hutton, Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that Labour should return to its ancestral roots and draw inspiration from the ideas and principles of British liberalism. Yet the liberalism they seek to rehabilitate is narrow and individualistic.

Many of the first generation of Labour leaders, like Hardie, had been active in the Liberal Party of William Gladstone and had broken with it only reluctantly. Their aim was not to repudiate the liberalism of their youth, but to realise its goals of human freedom and emancipation in the new and more challenging conditions of industrial capitalism.

Liberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas and beliefs, not all of them reconcilable. The writer and academic Mark Garnett has identified two rival modes of liberal thought, one "fleshed out", the other "hollowed out": "The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about ­human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of short-term material self-interest. For the hollowed-out liberal, other people are either means to an end, or obstacles which must be shunted aside. Instead of equality of respect, this is more like equality of contempt."

This tension runs through liberal thought from Adam Smith to the present day. In its extreme laissez-faire variant, classical liberalism assumes a model of human behaviour as rational, acquisitive and ruthlessly self-interested. Its "fleshed-out" form was developed by the idealist philosopher T H Green, and taken up by L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson. Green rejected the atomistic individualism that sees human beings as impermeable, self-contained units enjoying natural rights but owing no corresponding social obligations. Instead, he saw society and the individuals within it as fundamentally interdependent: "Without society, no persons; this is as true as that without persons . . . there could be no such society as we know."

This New Liberalism departed significantly from many of the precepts of classical liberalism. The New Liberals believed in progressive taxation to compensate for the unequal bargaining power of the marketplace and to pay for pensions and other forms of social security. They advocated the common ownership of natural monopolies and vital public services. They viewed property rights as conditional, not absolute, and subject to certain public-interest restrictions. They called for the limitation of working hours and new regulations to guarantee health and safety in the workplace. They stood behind the vision of a co-operative commonwealth built on explicitly moral foundations. As Hobhouse said: "We want a new spirit in economics - the spirit of mutual help, the sense of a common good. We want each man to feel that his daily work is a service to his kind, and that idleness and anti­social work are a disgrace."

Hobhouse described himself as a liberal socialist and, unlike Mill, he meant it unambiguously. Hobson and several other New Liberals went a stage further and joined the Labour Party. Indeed, Green, Hobhouse and Hobson are rightly considered to be pioneers of the British tradition of ethical socialism. Their influence over the leading Labour intellectuals of the early 20th century - R H Tawney, G D H Cole and Harold Laski - was both profound and freely acknowledged.

Implied in the move to uncover and reconnect liberal traditions in our party is the view that the foundation of an independent Labour Party with a distinctively socialist outlook was a historic wrong turning, and that the progressive left would have been better off devoting its energies to building an enduring electoral base for a strong and reformed Liberal Party. This conclusion is not stated openly, but is implicit in much contemporary discussion. Hardie, however, would have been appalled. And so should we today.

If New Labour, at its best, embodied the high aspirations of fleshed-out liberalism, its restricted understanding of the scope for change betrayed the cynical assumptions of its hollowed-out alter ego. New Labour talked quite rightly about the need for the party to broaden its appeal to win the support of "aspirational" voters, but equated aspiration with nothing more than crude acquisitiveness - to "earn and to own" indeed.

In that New Labour bible, The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould made a revealing distinction when he described his parents as having "wanted to do what was right, not what was aspirational". This betrays a fundamentally neoliberal mindset, and is quite an extraordinary statement of what we think people aspire to. The possibility that that which is right and the aspirational might overlap, even minimally, was never entertained.

As the late G A Cohen argued (see page 26), the problem is one of design. The technology for giving primacy to our acquisitive and selfish desires already exists in the form of a capitalist market economy. But we have not yet adequately devised the social technology capable of giving fullest expression to the generous and altruistic side of our personality. That is the main task of any future left.

Ethical socialism offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people's lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality and imaginary communities of belonging. It is this framework that has inspired the Labour Party at its best,transcends the sterile orthodoxies of both left and right, and remains the cornerstone of radicalism in the party. It is captured in the genius of Hardie as socialist, strategist, radical and liberal. It is built around a fundamentally different conception of the human condition from that of neoliberalism.

Echoing the words of Hardie, Tawney's essay "The Choice before the Labour Party", even though written in 1932, remains the best analysis of the crisis facing Labour today. It was written at the height of Labour's first real crisis, and highlights the dilemma at the heart of the party: the tension between orthodoxy and radicalism, the whole exacerbated by a lack of core belief.

Each of these crises has been blamed on external events, not least epochal, historical transformations driven by economic recession. But we shouldn't forget Labour's inability to resolve its internal contradictions; historically, it has been not so much a broad church as a collection of fragments in search of unity. Writing about the debacle of the Labour Party in 1931, Tawney describes how the government "did not fall with a crash, in a tornado from the blue. But crawled slowly to its doom."

Tawney's words echo down the years. "The gravest weakness of British Labour is . . . its lack of creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants." He does not pull his punches. There is, he says, a "void in the mind of the Labour Party" which leads us into "intellectual timidity, conservatism, conventionality, which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities".

Hardie and Tawney were part of a tradition that gives us hope and vitality, and charts a way out of the trap of orthodoxy. Now is the time for that tradition to be rediscovered.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham. He will give the Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture in Merthyr Tydfil on 11 September

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.