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15 November 2019

The row over Labour’s broadband policy says as much about the right as the left

Because the thing that was truly horrifying about Stalin was his commitment to faster download speeds. Tonight's Evening Call.

By Jonn Elledge

It’s all very well accusing the left of being unrealistic idealists, but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has today actually managed to do something that most commentators assumed was impossible: they’ve got everyone talking about policy. So much so that it’s entirely dominated the political day, so let’s have at it.

The policy in question is the pledge of free, full-fibre broadband for everyone in the UK by 2030 (a date, you’ll notice, which is conveniently at least three elections away, and very possibly, in light of recent history, many more). The party says it would achieve this by nationalising the Openreach part of BT, and by introducing a tax on tech giants. The cost? A cool £20bn.

Is this a good idea? I haven’t the foggiest. The public sector often isn’t great at running such things, and it would leave the quality of national broadband infrastructure at the mercy of Treasury whims. On the flipside, though, as anyone who has moved house in the last decade and found themselves offline for two months could tell you, it often doesn’t feel like the private sector is great at running such things either.

Fifteen years ago, what’s more, broadband was a luxury. Now it’s a utility, and one that’s increasingly necessary for anyone who wants to live in the modern world. There is nothing particularly weird about the idea that a government should be in charge of broadband cables, in the same way they’ve historically tended to be in charge of roads or power lines.

There’s been pushback from the right, of course, including the inevitable and baffling cries of “Stalinism” (because the thing that was truly horrifying about Stalin was his commitment to faster download speeds). But my suspicion is that tells us more about the right’s ideological refusal to countenance any expansion of the role of the state, than it does about any actual problems that the proposal may have.

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Two other thoughts. Firstly, despite the attacks, it feels to me like there’s a direct parallel between this policy and the Tory’s pledge of £500m to reopen railway lines closed by the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s. Both are infrastructure policies which seem to be targeted at the parties’ respective core votes (young people who move house a lot and use the internet for everything; old people who remember the good old days). And both, I fear, are under-estimating the cost of their proposal: on Twitter, rail expert Gareth Dennis points out that £500m is enough to re-open about 25 miles of line – hardly the reversal of Beeching that the name implies.

Secondly, as former pollster James Morris tweeted last night after a focus group: “If they don’t trust you it doesn’t matter what you promise them.” In other words, the popularity or otherwise of the policy may not actually matter. What a cheery thought.

Good day for…

The power of small trade unions. In an enlightening piece this afternoon, Patrick noted that many of Labour’s most radical policies were coming from the Communication Workers’ Union. Larger trade unions, like Len Mcclusky’s Unite, have by contrast tended to be a block on radicalism. It’s worth a read.

Bad day for…

The Brexit Party’s increasingly flimsy-looking commitment to represent the real people of Britain. The party has named Ed Punchard, a survivor of the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, as its candidate for Tynemouth – despite the fact he’s lived in Australia for nearly 30 years, and has only “passed through” the area until recently.

Punchard told local newspaper Chronicle Live that he has a “great fondness for the North East because of [his] time in the North Sea”. Well then.

Quote of the day

“I’m going to set up a lobbying firm called Historians Against Ahistorical Nonsense and it will just be me, becoming increasingly hoarse, begging people to stop pointing at things and calling them gulags.”

Dr Charlotte Riley, a historian at the University of Southampton, responding to Reaction’s Ian Martin’s apparently sincere suggestion that free broadband was a step on the road to the gulag.

Everybody’s talking about…

The electoral horserace, obviously, because despite our best intentions and today’s sudden burst of policy, we’re pretty much all more interested in who’s going to win than we are in what they’ll do afterwards.

If you too want to know who’s winning – and you’re only human – then you should read the excellent livechat that Stephen and Patrick held earlier in which they delved into that very question.

Everybody should be talking about…

The fact that Jeremy Corbyn was last night photographed holding a copy of Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, an unofficial Doctor Who spin off DVD featuring a rapacious and ultra-capitalist slug creature, who appeared on the show twice in the mid-1980s, as well as former companion Sophie Aldred (Ace!) in full monster make-up.

If you don’t get this reference – and I hope for your sake you don’t – it is difficult to convey quite how weird this is. Honestly, it’s like finding out that Boris Johnson is a fan of Stephen’s Harry Potter fan fic. But the section of the nerdsphere that remembers the 1990s, when stuff like this was all we had instead of new Doctor Who, are unlikely to soon recover from the shock.

Corbyn had been handed the DVD by the actor Nabil Shaban, who plays the slug in question. But don’t google it, it’ll only upset you.


I’m taking next week off so that I can go to Ikea and Prague (though not, you note, Ikea in Prague). Evening Call will instead be written by a motley selection of my excellent colleagues.

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