A summary of “Digital” in the Labour leadership debate

At a time of great uncertainty about the future of the Government Digital Services and the direction of development of online public services, I would have expected more mentions of digital in the Labour leadership debate. This has not happened and it is a sad state of affairs for a party that aims to be presenting a coherent and forward-looking vision for an effectively run public sector.

It is sad to realise that a leadership debate is, in 2015, mostly a mediatic happening: no lengthy policy documents and no manifestos, but plenty of buzzwords, all-covering speeches, and “vision” statements. Still, digital-savvy activists would like to hear more.

There is little mention of digital services in any of the aspiring leaders’ / deputy leaders’ websites, with a couple of notable exceptions. Digital is not much of a leadership topic, it would seem. So I’ve had to google to learn what they have said about digital issues.

As much as I search, I cannot find anything on digital from Andy Burnham. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about investment mentions digital shortly:

We must ensure that our national housing, transport, digital and energy networks are among the best in the world.

He also suggests that his “People QE” would include funding to upgrade the outdated UK digital infrastructure and invest in digital projects:

The Bank of England must be given a new mandate to upgrade our economy to invest in new large scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects.

Liz Kendall has similarly touched on the subject. In a column she wrote jointly with Liam Byrne on Labour List, she argues for fostering digital skills, create more digital jobs, and further investment (in a devolved manner, through cities). Kendall also writes about her vision of public services:

we must use technological innovation to transform the power people have over the services they use. This requires a very different attitude to control of data and information. In order to design responsive, personalised and efficient public services we need to trust people with their own data and give people the power and knowledge to help themselves.

Yvette Cooper’s website has downloadable policy banners offering a “high-wage, high-tech economy” vision. I cannot find any more details on the website itself, but she addressed Demos last year with a lengthy speech touching on several challenges that the digital world is bringing into our lives. The speech was primarily focussed on security rather than economy (being Cooper the Shadow Home Secretary) and contained interesting points about Cooper’s position on the Data Communications Bill (or Snoopers’ Charter — which Cooper originally claimed to be willing to support in a watered-down version, although the party line then changed to “let’s wait and see”). Cooper also briefly mentions corporate surveillance, but she doesn’t go as far as suggesting solutions:

Private sector organisations now have the capacity to hold huge amounts of data about us.

Among the deputy leadership contenders, the situation is slightly more exciting although manifestos are still lacking in depth. In terms of digital, it is hard to compete with Tom Watson — digital rights have always been one of his strengths and favourite campaigning topics and he was Britain’s first Digital Minister. Watson scores geeky points too, for example by having established the “All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones”. His policy brochure mentions digital in multiple points, among which a daring

The party needs a Chief Digital Officer.

This is an interesting way of imagining a political party in 2015. Tongue in cheek, it is a real shame that Mike Bracken has already found a job…

In an interview with the Huffington Post Watson mentions digital rights, digital democracy and the idea that in this era politics need to start shifting to the digital world. He also mentions a favourite topic of mine, digital tools and the frankly terrible approach Labour have to data collection:

Given that we were collecting so much data around the country and we have got various smart people who can analyse the data, why didn’t the smart people pick up we were in trouble in Telford, Vale of Clwyd, and dare I say it in Ed Balls’ seat? I want to find out why that happened.

The other frontrunner, Stella Creasy, comes out equally well. Creasy is well known for having fought against Wonga and other loan sharks and spoken out against online harassment, of which she was a victim. On Labour List, she has published, together with Chi Onwurah, a number of interesting analyses of the digital economy. Creasy argues that digital government is one of the ways to do more with less money. She is also keen on regulating personal data:

Information on individuals should be owned by and accessible to the individual, not hoarded by the state.

Creasy also understands the need for any Government to restore public trust when talking about data:

It is time for a public debate on “data and society” that openly and honestly recognises the challenges of handling and analysing personal data; and that assesses the true benefits and limitations of big data and open data. These concerns are not simply limited to public agencies, but are at the heart of our approach to all platforms in which information is produced.

Another good point from Creasy is her view on how the Government should position itself in the development of digital:

The role of governments, she said, is to “crowdsource”, not “crowd-control”; to understand digital not as a technology but as a way of working; and to create the environment in which “creativity can be unleashed”.

I cannot find any relevant content from Caroline Flint (her big topic is energy, which might capture some of the issues about digital) or Angela Eagle.

Ben Bradshaw has touched upon the topic when he was Culture Secretary to fight against online piracy and he supported the Brown Government’s Digital Economy Bill that was subsequently passed into an Act:

Hundreds of millions of pounds every year is currently haemorrhaging from our creative industries because of unlawful file-sharing.

In terms of past voting records on digital, there are two that I would like to mention:

  1. Bradshaw and Flint, as health ministers, have been strong supporters of the flawed NHS National Programme for IT; Burnham, on making it part of his own portfolio, oversaw massive cuts to it.
  2. The Digital Economy Bill was supported by most of Labour, with the notable exceptions of Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn among the leadership candidates (Cooper, Eagle, Flint and Bradshaw supported the Bill; Kendall and Creasy were not MPs back then; Burnham was absent).

The absence of digital from the mainstream political discourse is just one dimension of the problem. The other is the operational aspect, i.e. the use of digital technologies by the candidates (and by the party at large). Here the failure to properly engage with digital technologies is rather evident. The candidates (even those who score well with their position on digital) have repeatedly been accused of spamming supporters with e-mails (sometimes over 5–6 per day), text messages, tweets.

One long-standing Labour supporter tells me that he’s considering cancelling his membership in frustration, after having unsubscribed a number of times from the e-mails to no avail.

“There is an unsubscribe button, but they just keep e-mailing you anyway!”

Moreover, just opting in to one type of communications has often resulted in e-mails from either the Party HQ or specific candidates that were unrelated to the consent given. Although opponents are ready to highlight the possible consequences of this behaviour in terms of Data Protection (some have filed complaints to the ICO), it is plausible that such failures are more a symptom of ignorance and lack of training rather than a conscious willingness to use personal data incorrectly.

After Barack Obama famously won by targetting voters using Nationbuilder, Labour operations managers decided that the party was ready for it. A roll-out on a massive scale has been in place, often without much training for the volunteers and organizers who run the system. As a consequence, we often see multiple, overlapping, Nationbuilder websites, with unclear relationships among the several “people databases”: a constituency website, an MP’s website, a borough party website, and so on. Sometimes, campaign-specific Nationbuilder websites have been built.

With some party supporters clicking their support away on multiple e-mails, and their data ending up in multiple, separate, databases, it isn’t surprising that opting-out has become close to impossible.

Digital is about politics and about operations. The Labour Party cannot enter the future if it doesn’t use digital technology and doesn’t start speaking about digital — this is especially true if we discuss how to run digital services that are inclusive and follow the public sector ethos of the Labour Party; the party should not use the technology if it doesn’t understand the wider meaning of digital.

The Labour party needs to understand digital outside its doors and start discussing about it in its policy and ideological circles; it needs to do so by giving digital a Labour “spin”: this can be about ethics, inclusiveness, community, opportunity; but it is also about engaging properly with digital technology in its operations: not a dumb use of Nationbuilder and who knows what other tools, but a use of tools that is coherent with an overarching communications and supporters development strategy.

This requires a lot of work especially at the activists’ level, effort and commitment from the leadership. Whoever wins in the leadership and deputy leadership contests, if Labour wants to have a shot at fighting — yet alone winning — the next General Election, the leadership will need to act to get both the political and operational shades of digital embedded within party activities.