The Vote Leave bus gets a makeover. Photo: Getty
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The £350m bus voters: did the Tories fail to win because they assumed austerity was the new normal?

Theresa May's team did not tell voters why continued austerity was necessary. At a time when the NHS and schools were overstretched, that was a crucial mistake. 

At this point, it feels slightly unkind to write about mistakes in the Tory campaign. But here's another one.

The Conservatives ran a campaign against the backdrop of squeezed public services and the prospect of cuts to schools, thanks to the new funding formula. But they never bothered to do what David Cameron and George Osborne did - tell voters why they couldn't have any more money for services they valued. The former prime minister and former Chancellor successfully laid the groundwork for cutting back the state by telling Britain that it was the only way out of the financial crisis, that Labour's "over spending" had left us dangerously exposed, and that if we didn't cut the deficit, we would end up a basketcase economy like Greece. The standout slogan from the 2015 election was the Conservatives' "long term economic plan".

However, that narrative was missing this time round. Amber Rudd talked at the second-tier leaders' debate about the "magic money tree" (or rather, its non-existence). But there was little mention of the deficit, or about any explanation of why our belts needed to remain tightened, or even any bad metaphors about credit cards. The financial crash is now a full decade ago, and voters - not unreasonably - feel that era of uncertainty and financial panic is over. So why, if everything is supposedly rosy, are schools sending home letters begging for donations from parents? Why are teachers facing the sack? (George Osborne must have seen this danger: his newspaper, the Evening Standard, ran a campaign against the new school funding formula.)

Part of this complacency springs from a misreading of last year's vote to leave the European Union. Although many voters were undoubtedly enthused about casting off the hated yokeTM of Brussels, a far greater number wanted to cut immigration, but only if it wouldn't cost too much money. (For Remain voters, the economy was the biggest issue, according to post-referendum polling. For Leavers, it was immigration.) The genius - or great lie - of Vote Leave was not just to neutralise those fears, but to go beyond them - to create the impression that less money sent to Brussels meant more money to be spent in Britain. That famous £350m a week, written on the side of a bus.

After 24 June, British voters found out that the extra £350m was in fact, more of an aspiration, and one which would not be available for years to come, if ever. At the same time, a narrative emerged in which Ukip and Conservative voters were primarily driven by immigration per se, when in fact immigration has always been interwoven with anxiety over jobs and the wider economy. ("Immigrants are driving down wages". "There's no jobs round here because they all go to Eastern Europeans".) 

And so the Conservatives went into the election promising to end freedom of movement, a promise which was matched by Labour, giving them little advantage on the issue of immigration with the voters for whom for that is a key issue. They tried to paint Labour as tax-hikers, but ostentatiously promised a tax hike of their own. And they forgot to make the case for austerity to everyone who worried about their local A&E closing or their local school losing teachers.

They assumed that austerity was the New Normal, and we had accepted it so thoroughly that the case for cutting back the state no longer needed to be made.

In short, they forget about the £350m Bus Voters.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.