‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

#EnoughIsEnough – Joining this weekend’s social media boycott

The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.

Image from blog.snappingturtle.net (blog no longer updated)

The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.

Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.

Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.

This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.

It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.

In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.

It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.

All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.

My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.

#EnoughIsEnough #AnInjuryToOneIsAnInjurytoAll

[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:

  • applying filters and blocking measures
  • better accountability for safety, including effective verification
  • ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
  • a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
  • robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
  • transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.

In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]

Clocking big tech: the fight to own your data

This is the text of my autumn 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Prospect has been working with a coalition of unions, tech specialists and researchers to develop new approaches to how we take control of our own data.

In July the beta version of one of those ideas – the WeClock app – was launched but soon after Facebook decided to ban the app on its platform. After discussions with the app developers, Facebook has now reversed this decision.

At Prospect, we have long been aware of big data and the need to secure the interests of our members when it comes to all the ways that algorithm-based software can be used at work.

Desktop spying

Indeed, many apps seek to put a ‘spy on our desktop’ – and with more people working from home during the pandemic, the risk increases of employers also wanting to put a ‘spy in our homes’.

Google has invested billions in mapping the world and developing self-driving car technology, because it wants to be in a position to shape our technology choices when it comes to our mobility.

That means knowing where we go, how often we go there and how often (and where) we stop en route. This encroaches into our lives as workers as well as private citizens.

Facebook is not the only example – merely among the most egregious. Earlier this summer, the social media platform pitched that Facebook Workplace, its office collaboration project, would allow employers to control the content of group discussions by banning words such as ‘unionize‘.

It later had to backtrack after complaints by its own employees and the US trade union organisation AFL-CIO.

Knowledge is power

Not least when it comes to the workplace, the data on which our choices are based belongs to us – or should do. Surveillance software undermines that principle and its very existence raises the need for accountability and worker involvement in decision-making about its use. Data needs to become part of our bargaining agenda.

This battleground reveals the rationale for Facebook’s initial decision regarding WeClock: its whole reason for being lies in hoovering up our data about what interests us, analysing that and then packaging it to secure advertising revenues.

Start-ups like WeClock, which enables workers to log their own working hours and overtime to protect themselves from being overworked and underpaid. Crucially it leaves control of the data entirely in users’ hands.

As Christina Colclough, who led the team behind the app, observes, WeClock is a ‘self-tracking privacy-preserving tool we can be proud of’. The more apps opt for such an ethical approach, the more those users will understand what platforms like Facebook and Google operate. And the more people realise the importance of asserting their rights over their data, the more shaky these platforms’ way of operating becomes.

Facebook’s monitoring software, Workplace, is a key tool it can sell to employers facing worker recognition campaigns.

Online activism

I doubt we have heard the last of Facebook Workplace. Lobbyist and employer consultant Rick Berman says the pandemic has encouraged a ‘historic rise in labour activism‘.

He warns that employees worried about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other platforms to share their concerns, giving union organisers greater access to disgruntled workers.

Worker recognition campaigns in the tech giants and elsewhere are certainly growing in the face of increasingly precarious terms and conditions.

In ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, we need to encourage high-trust workplaces where managers are allowed to do their jobs by actively using their own people management skills.

Prospect will continue to articulate the need for better trust, accountability and transparency when it comes to monitoring and surveillance software in the workplace; and for data to become part of the bargaining agenda.

As our workplaces change, our core commitment to empower our members to realise those goals remains steadfast.

Book Review: The Nanny State Made Me

I received Stuart Maconie‘s The Nanny State Made Me as a birthday present back in September (thanks, Tracy!) and, of course, it therefore jumped to the top of my reading list not least owing to the title.

Part-autobiography, part-paean to Stuart’s own upbringing and development within the arms of the Welfare State, this was written during 2019 and published, following a revision which took account of the results of the general election (the anniversary of which is of course a year ago next week), in early March. This was, quite clearly, an inauspicious time to be publishing a book about public policy; Covid-19, like the internet, having changed everything.

Following introductory chapters setting out the remarkable immediate post-War timing of the introduction of the Welfare State, and the sustained attacks on it during the Thatcherite years in which we have been living since 1979, each chapter then takes young Stuart through a stage of his life through birth (in 1961, in an NHS hospital), early education and teenage years to the worlds of work and the dole queue, housing, public transport, and BBC and the media; before, eventually, winding up with a few thoughts on getting back what we have lost.

Fans of Maconie’s work (and I am one, as my book-giver clearly also knows!) know what to expect: wry observation drawn from contemporary interviews illustrating his theme; a sprinkling of sharp epigrams drawing attention to the absurd (Maconie continues to have a sharp eye for a well-turned phrase); and a clear and engaging writing style mixing a patient, but quizzically frustrated, tone with occasional righteous anger at the absurdities of modern day living. Describing him as a ‘man of the people’ sounds somewhat pejorative, but Maconie is clearly interested in people and the combination of that and the ability to translate such interest into warm, affectionate writing detailing (or referencing) brief encounters and events, some contemporary, some historic, makes him always worth reading (or listening to, as his BBC 6Music shows also prove).

On top of that, there is also a very touching dedication which says a lot more – about theme and about author – than its 19 words allow; while it commences with a lovely anecdote involving a landmark famous on the London skyline, Tony Benn and an anonymous operative of a long-privatised business. And there is the – by now obligatory – puntastic title whose phrasing is capable of a dual meaning while also being inspired, at a deeper level, by the honourable member for the 18th century.

There is, of course, a lot to be angry about when it comes to what has happened to our public services in this now 40-year experiment of privatisation and liberalisation. The NHS is still – just about, perhaps – hanging together but public transport is a disaster and the nonsensities of trying to introduce competition into the supply of essential services like energy has been, at best, a failure and at worst, a scandalous scheme under which the public has been ripped off with a deliberate view to the enrichment of those few who are already well-off. The current controversy over NHS data contracts being sold to Peter Thiel, the shadowy billionaire behind the Cambridge Analytica data mining operation, and over the cronyism with which this government views its public service obligations during the current crisis, add to the frustration – as well they ought. Some of this is quite familiar – albeit that the decades-long failure to do much if anything about it means that to repeat the message is not, by definition, over-stating it. In particular, it is ground well-trodden in James Meek’s London Review of Books essays collected together in Private Island. Maconie’s quotes from this make me realise that this has also languished, in its 2015 (though still current) edition, too long on my to-read shelf.

What underpins the arena of Maconie’s theme is the growth of inequality in the UK. The post-war welfare state was, ultimately, inspired by the need to deliver a more equal society in which the resources of the state would be invested deliberately and practically to address sources of inequality. Any attack on the welfare state can thus be read quite easily – whatever mealy-mouthed arguments made on behalf of doing so by whichever vested interest is mounting them – as an attempt to undermine the perception of that need and, thereby, the goal of reducing inequality itself. It is clear from a look at the Gini coefficient (a flawed, perhaps, but clear yardstick against which a state’s progress in overcoming, or otherwise, inequality can readily be measured) that the UK has become a much more unequal society in these years. The bulk of that growth occurred the 1980s while little has happened in the last thirty post-Thatcher years to address that: the coefficient has, with some volatility as a result of some of the recent circumstances of our times, bumped around the same level ever since. This includes during Labour governments which, despite the good things that they did do, failed to address the growth in inequalities that the welfare state was set up to deal with and which had risen so sharply during the years of Thatcher:

Indexed series; 1997=100. Break in series in 2001. Source: Office for National Statistics

In this context, the arguments made by leading Brexiteers on the far right of the Tory Party of the opportunity which Brexit gives (and which indeed drove Brexit) to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution‘ need careful attention since they clearly herald a further rise in inequality.

The earlier, more autobiographical chapters of Maconie’s book work rather better than the later ones. In particular, chapter 2 on schooling, in which Maconie’s arguments on behalf of comprehensive education shine with undimmed passion (I write as a grammar school boy who did actually benefit from the social mobility arguments – though of course exceptions don’t prove the rule), is a marvellously sustained piece of writing. The later chapters suffer, in a lengthy section on the BBC by appearing a little defensive (and there’s a lot to defend, I know); as well as in arguments for the nationalisation of the internet appearing a little illiberal (and, also, would you really want a crony appointee of this government in charge of erecting garden walls around your internet? Better to regulate the abuses/abusers, I think – and there are many of both – and to break up the over-mighty and the anti-democratic among the giants of those that have exploited the ‘net. That quite clearly encompasses Amazon, Google and Facebook. For that, of course, we need a stronger hand than ‘global Britain’ alone.)

In particular, I feel he pulls his punches in the final chapter which sets out the ‘how to save it’ mission described on the cover but which is, unfortunately, episodic and indeed a little unformed. There are some useful conversations around the Norwegian example; and the references to the extraordinariness of ordinary, heroic people are timely (even if our essentially conservative nature and belief in sweet moderation means we keep on electing Conservative governments whose wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise proves of apparently perennial value). But, aside from a call to ‘bring the Nanny State back’, just precisely how to do that proves a rather elusive target around which Stuart boxes well but on the practicalities of which he never really lays a glove.

Those farther to the left will identify a possible reason for this; while, as I said at the outset, this also reflects a timing problem of publication and deadlines: Covid-19 has laid bare that the priorities of the governments we elect, in what they choose to do in office, are very much a matter of choice – and especially at a time when interest rates are low enough to mean that borrowing money is not only extremely cheap but actually financially attractive. In this way, the rather public noise over the economic illiteracy of ‘maxing out the credit card’ – Thatcher’s Grantham grocer-shop ‘economics’ written for the 21st century – is a very welcome add to the public debate.

In short, the practicalities behind Maconie’s desire to bring back the Nanny State – kicking out the private sector from the NHS; achieving a comprehensive nature to the education system; restoring democratic power to local councils, not least as regards the building of homes; ending the farce and rip-off pricing of bus and rail privatisation; putting control of energy supply back in the hands of the nation as opposed to abiding by a figleaf of market economics (not least with green, sustainability goals in mind – this week’s collapse of BiFab proves that green jobs need to be worked for); and freeing the BBC from the straitjacket of the much-abused concept of ‘impartiality’ to abide by its Reithian objectives of public entertainment and education – are now more, perhaps oddly, a little visible than they were when he was finalising his draft. Maconie hints – strongly, even – at all this, but is missing a few of the ‘action words’ set out above.

If we can have the vision to develop a Welfare State in the midst of a war; what might we do now to develop that vision to restore it in the middle of a pandemic? If the country is to emerge from its mishandling by the over-promoted bunglers we’ve placed in charge, that manifesto needs to be put in place now. In retrospect therefore, this is something of a missed opportunity for Maconie to be this generation’s Beveridge – but, on the other hand, I might, therefore, look forward to a 2021 edition with a re-written final chapter which identifies the ‘how’ a little more explicitly. If the pandemic has been good for anything, it is at least that it has facilitated the ground for such thinking.

The Russia Report, politics and the corruption of democracy in the UK

The Russia Report was, after significant fanfare following the (mis-)handling of the process of the election of the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, finally released yesterday. On a first read through, there might indeed not be a lot of explosions in it, but that’s not to say that there’s no dynamite been planted. Indeed, and contrary to my earlier prediction, there was more than just embarrassment for the current UK government in its pages.

Remarkably, the text was released outwith the auspices of parliament.uk, which handles the publication of parliamentary business. After some searching, I found the page for the Committee on parliament.uk – but it is more or less blank, apart from listing the members of the committee (having been updated following the election of the chair). Indeed, this is a screenshot of what confronted me yesterday evening:

ISC page 21-7-20

Instead, the ISC has its own, entirely plain text website, including its history and publications, whose back-to-basics appearance initially made me wonder whether this was some spoof, malicious or otherwise. Furthermore, and remarkably, the report itself has been released through Google Docs. This I find quite extraordinary. A report on the highly sensitive question of interference in UK democracy, authored by a ‘joint other committee’ of parliament, having interviewed key witnesses some of whose evidence needs to be redacted, and seeking action from the UK government not least on the specific question of online harm, being released on Google Docs is, quite literally, incredible. More or less immediately on opening the report, Firefox informed me that it had blocked a pop-up window.

Perhaps there was not time, especially during the pandemic, to get the official parliament.uk webpages updated in time, and perhaps the page is already being updated (it hadn’t as of 2.45 this afternoon); or perhaps the Committee has chosen deliberately to emphasise its independence – the word is, after all, contained in the URL of its site – from the government (although all such committees are independent of the UK government: they have to be, to do their work properly in holding the government to account). But to release a report of this nature and dealing with such an issue as this through the medium of Google Docs is both astonishing and remarkable.

[EDIT 28 July: one week later and the ISC page on parliament.uk still looks the same – although of course the Report has been laid before parliament.]

The main points of the conclusions of the report are clearly now well into the public domain so I won’t waste any time in documenting them, other than simply pointing to the clarity of Foreign Policy‘s quick take; and to the Committee’s own press release (also on Google Docs…). I want here to explore just a couple of the implications.

First, this is clearly incredibly embarrassing for the current UK government. To have any independent criticism of its actions as being ‘asleep at the wheel’ while the democracy of the country that you govern is potentially interfered with ‘as the new normal’ is embarrassing enough. But – more than that, and of course the reason why we have a bystander government in the area set out by the report – is that it has been captured by one, or more (see below), foreign government(s). Russian oligarchs have been welcomed ‘with open arms’ as investors with tier one visas into the ‘laundromat’ of London (actually since 1994) and they have grown close to this government (and, indeed, to leading figures in previous ones). It is no coincidence that Johnson celebrated the 2019 election result the following day at a party hosted by the Lebedev family; the Tory Party has, over a period of time, accepted significant donations from Russian oligarchs seeking to build patronage and extend influence but to do so covertly. There is, of course, a reason that these oligarchs have become very rich and are able to live long enough to enjoy the wealth they have been given. And, if your state aim is to invest in disinformation and to further the goal of disruption, who better to invest in than today’s Tory Party? It’s not as though as it’s come particularly expensive.

Second, the report is, so far, a little short on recommendations, although the Committee may see this as the target of its future, continuing work. Nevertheless, it quite clearly identifies the lacuna which has been government action as regards the UK being a target for disinformation and influence campaigns going back at least as far as the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. It is a disgrace that this report – which does not appear to have been added to under the new Committee – was not published prior to the last election: although, of course, there is a reason for this. That all parties – government itself, as well as the intelligence agencies – see the potential for external influence in the UK’s electoral processes not so much in the balloting but in the campaigning as too much of a ‘hot potato’ is damning enough. That no-one cares sufficiently about democracy is, ultimately, the reason why it dies – but it is astonishing that none of the agencies seems to have wanted to take some initiative in this area.

Partly, of course, this is because the agencies have come to see defending democracy as a political task. Astonishing as this, it is of course a product of the polarisation and the intensity of feeling that our referendums-based politics of recent years has engendered, and it is also a product of the opprobrium that official bodies – including, of course, the Electoral Commission – receive when they seek to go about their job. Here, as a sidenote, our democracy is lucky to have campaigners and whistle-blowers such as, for example, Carole Cadwalladr prepared to take the abuse to get some of this stuff into the open. For, make no mistake, the leaders and financiers of mobs such as these have, at the very least, no interest in preserving democracy.

At the same time, the reason for lack of action on the government side, apart from it being in hock to vested interests, is quite simple. It would be easy to state that, as a Vote Leave (Continuity) government, it has no interest in looking at the potential for disinformation campaigns to succeed since it has no reason in encouraging anything that might discredit the outcome for which it fought. That’s true, of course, but the truth is also a little deeper that that: this is, in style, a campaigner government, and on a single issue, and one that is, therefore, singularly ill-equipped to grasp the thorns of the detailed policy development work that is required of governments. It is not interested in doing the hard yards of a trade deal with the EU; it is not interested in the tough slog of developing a practical response to a pandemic; it is not interested in taking action when its senior adviser breaks rules which apply to all, or in its ministers dining with donors before planning decisions or engaging in pork barrel politics; and it is simply not interested in objective criticisms of its bystander nature.

This is not only because the government adopts the disinterested, lazy, irresponsible and fatuous character of its leader, or because its leading ministers are appointed not because of their actual capabilities but on the basis of their essential adherence to the One True Faith and their ability therefore to be co-opted into going along with anything which doesn’t disrupt that objective. This government is only interested in, and only capable of achieving, the campaign-based objective which brought it into office and in facilitating as much anarchic disruption as it can. Brexit now having been achieved, and the free trade deal with the EU either having been scuppered or else realised in only a minimal silhouette of an agreement, there is actually no reason for it to be any longer in office. As a Labour supporter, committed to social and economic justice and in redistribution to achieve those aims, and in facilitating a just transition to a sustainable, green economy, I would say that, I guess. But, objectively speaking, this government’s job under our current electoral system is done and it needs to get out.

Third, the Committee has done invaluable work in pointing out that:

The UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum [i.e. to that in the US conducted by the Director of National Intelligence] and that an unclassified summary of it be published. (para. 47)

Given the careless approach of this government, as well as its immediate reaction in reiterating that it has seen no evidence of interference and that no such enquiry was necessary, it will need to continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire on it and to commit the necessary resources so that the agencies can make such an assessment. This is, by the way, a requirement of all select committees for as long as this particular government stays in office, and not only because it has a ridiculously large majority. Holding the government accountable within parliament is not only an essential pillar for democracy in ordinary times, it is, at this time, a vital task in keeping that democracy alive. Making it ‘illegal’ for spooks to be in the country unless, ludicrously, they have identified themselves as such spectacularly misses the point of the problems to which the Committee is pointing, i.e. of (dis)information activity having moved online. What action is required is to think more closely and much less casually about the use of social media platforms, particularly during plebiscites, in undermining democracy and in achieving the aims of foreign governments. It is good that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is pressing the government on online harm; and it needs to keep on doing so.

Do I think that such an enquiry should lead to the 2016 referendum being re-run? No, I don’t – and that is of course not what the Intelligence and Security Committee is calling for. Digging in on this, as the government did yesterday, simply reveals that it fears it has something to hide. We are already out of the EU and so re-running the referendum is not only pointless, it is practically impossible. The issue of the UK’s membership of the EU is dead for a generation – much as I deeply regret this, we can’t now revisit it. Furthermore, this is not only now a question for the UK – it’s one for the rest of the EU, too. But the issue is also bigger than this partisan issue – we are all, on whatever side we stand, damaged when our democracy is attacked. If it requires an acknowledgment that there is no revisiting 2016 to make this government order an enquiry to assess how potential interference can – and should – be combated in the future, then it is a price worth paying.

I would like to see the closing of the Pandora’s Box of the use of referendums in ‘settling’ issues of national importance but, more than that, what has become clear from the Committee’s work is that we need to reform our electoral system to rebuild democracy. We probably do need state funding for political parties. We probably do need electoral reform: I was never particularly committed to this – indeed, I voted against in the 2011 referendum, albeit mostly because I was not in favour of the Alternative Vote system being proposed – but it is clear that our current, tribal winner-take-all politics is incapable of handling the nuances of modern political life and the task of rebuilding the country post-Brexit and post-pandemic, as well as in the face of the external pressures being put up against it. We can’t again have an extremist government elected with a sweeping mandate but whose actual capability is so poor; and neither again can we have the position where the leader of one small opposition party can block the efforts of all opposition parties to work together in the national interest, as was the case last autumn. And certainly we need to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an upper chamber which evenly balances representation from all the countries of the UK and in which the voices of all the other countries can be heard and respected.

And, one final point, neither is this just about Russia. The Russian state might have had much to benefit from the disruption of the UK, in 2014, and then the EU as a result of Brexit (and, we might add, in extending war in the middle east when the migrants that action produces head for the EU); and certainly the hands of its agents are all over the Tory Party. But, to analyse the source of the funding of the campaign to leave the EU and the benefits this has, for some, and all the other tentacles of the Tufton Street network – the source of that is quite clearly the other side of the Atlantic. Our democracy needs protecting from the US, too.

Ludicrously happy to record that 2020 has seen my wee blog get more visitors and, now, more page views than in any other year of its life so far (since late 2016). And it’s not even the end of July, yet.

With grateful thanks to all those who read, like, comment, retweet or re-blog any of my posts. I heart you all!

Still no joke… ten years on from an exploding Icelandic volcano

‘Hey,’ said my friend Darko, ‘You can’t get back home!’ on finding me, as arranged, one mid-April evening in a hotel bar in Plzen, located mid-way between Prague and the Czech-German border broadly in the direction of Nürnberg. We were there, with other colleagues, to participate in an annual, albeit travelling, conference. I suspected Darko, known for his jokes, was pulling my leg – but ‘No – really: look!’ The TV was showing shocking pictures of a spreading ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland which soon led to airspace being closed, flights grounded and airports shuttered.

Hidden Europe, the regular English language publication dedicated to slow travel and to taking the train wherever possible, and published by a Berlin-based editorial bureau, reminded me this morning that it’s now just over ten years since those events saw me engage in some ‘slow travel’ of my own as I sought some way of returning north-west to the UK as the ash cloud was making its own, fairly leisurely, way south-east.

At a time of a lockdown caused by a different set of circumstances entirely, and with short-haul air travel again being viewed as not so much at a crossroads as at an end, assisted by sustainability concerns, it’s interesting to reflect on how things might have changed for travellers now faced with similar disruption.

I wrote about my experiences at the time on Connected Research, a WordPress blog I used to maintain (daily!) while working as a researcher for Connect and then Prospect. I’m deliberately not linking to it as the blog itself is not so much ancient as pre-historic, although you can still find it easily enough if you’re that motivated. The focus of my post was that, at a time of a communications revolution under which corporations were rapidly saving money for shareholders by locating customer services online, away from central, accessible locations (or at call centres whose lines were constantly engaged), information (and support) was almost unavailable with the result that travellers were being abandoned to the outcomes of their own, frequently poor choices and to chance. So much for customer service in the information era.

My own return journey took me in a rather circuitous way via Prague, Nürnberg, Berlin and Amsterdam (I had flown by KLM and laboured initially under the naive assumption that it was up to KLM to get me home again, or somehow ‘look after’ me) as I sought some resolution in the context of a rapidly dawning realisation that I was being abandoned entirely to my own devices amidst highly-influential stories (perhaps, indeed, sourced from a good deal of theatre; Hidden Europe is probably right there) of people paying exhorbitant sums for cross-border journeys.

This sort of return would be surely less likely to happen today: information is much more widely available to people on the move; ‘roam like at home’ has made data services more accessible to travellers; and smartphones are more ubiquitous than the ‘feature phone’ I then had, offering maps of somewhat less-than-familiar locations and access to pages offering advice on rights, as well as things like Twitter (which I joined six months later), providing hints and tips both from official as well as unofficial ones about what is, and is not, happening on the ground. The evident result of greater information is that critical choices at a time of immense disruption are likely to be better informed. Advice about the impact of CV-19 on impending journeys today features clearly on corporate webpages – see, for instance, the current KLM one.

On the other hand, it is not clear that travel companies have become more adept at the sort of decisive decision-making that lends itself to the ability to make definitive alternative plans in such a situation. Public accountability via things like Twitter can often produce turn-arounds when corporates become aware that they are losing a particular public relations battle – and that’s a clear advantage of the medium – but what is still more likely to prevail, at least in the first instance, is a fear of the outcomes of practical decisions, not only in the sense of claims for compensation, and this tends towards corporate blame-shifting, indecision and sclerosis. In my case, my airline was – like many others – caught on the hop and, as a result, it became invisible (though, perhaps, not as bad as some). Clearly, companies need time to sort themselves out when pressured by this sort of thing and, in the context of volcanic eruptions, the situation changes all the time. Lessons may well have been learned in the meantime – both as a result of Eyjafjallajökull as well as CV-19 – but whether these extend to clarity and decisiveness among corporates is a moot point. [Edit: it’s clear, meanwhile, that the UK government – Tories then as now – hasn’t got any better at repatriating people stranded abroad, with organisational incapacity, communications failures and a desire to save money at its heart.]

Incidentally, returning to Hidden Europe, my experience was not that Eurostar had plenty of seats available. In Nürnberg, Eurostar had no capacity at all from the Saturday afternoon until the Tuesday (and then only in first class) while, returning to the centre of Amsterdam on the Monday afternoon from a fruitless trip to Schiphol, I chanced on a travel agent who told me that a Eurostar had only just been released for the following day, and who wasted no time in booking me on it. An overnight coach from Berlin to London would have been interesting, though.

Did someone say Plzen? Here’s my photo of the brewery gates from that trip:

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And here’s where they used to brew beer in the couple of centuries before the 1839 ‘beer revolt’:

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Book Review: How Democracies Die

I picked up this slim volume last year in the midst of political crisis in the UK with an increasingly minority government sacking large numbers of ministers and MPs from its own party ranks, and thereby stymied on the main issue of the day – itself, of course, emblematic of a democracy that had been hijacked. It was, of course, eventually (and inexplicably) released from the pegs on which it was so expertly hanging itself and the rest is now history. Vote in haste; repent at leisure, we might think, not least when confronted with a government of all the talents featuring Matt ‘Telegraph’ Hancock in charge of health and Chris ‘ferries’ Grayling in charge of the, er, Commons Intelligence Committee.

My purchase was to try and come to some form of understanding of the threats to a mature democracy and, perhaps, the myriad links between them. This book – for all its scholarly nature (one-quarter of it is endnotes) – really isn’t the tool for this since, for all the generic nature of the title, the authors’ concern is not democracy in general but democracy in the US: the book’s focus is the US constitution and party system and the checks and balances these offer (or not) against the slide into authoritarianism. Particularly, therefore, the authors – both Harvard professors – are concerned with whether US democracy can survive Donald Trump; the authors are not certain that it can and, indeed, wisely observe that it is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. When demagogues are in charge, how could it not be?

Now, ‘The fate of the great United States/ [Might well be] entwined in the fate of us all’ but, not being a particular expert on the US political system, I’m not that well placed to comment on the detail of the authors’ policy prescription given that this is substantially concerned with the US political system. (I do know a man who is, though.)

Given events in the UK, I was, however, attracted by the thought that polarisation is the main problem in the US and that, unless leaders find a way of addressing that issue, ‘democracy will die’ (p. 222). The drivers of polarisation in the US – religious and racial realignment and economic inequality – might be different to those in the UK (although clearly economic inequality needs to be tackled here, too) but we do of course have a highly polarised society in the wake of Brexit. Just how much this continues to affect UK democracy is as yet unknown but, given that Brexit is driving fresh support for the independence movement in Scotland, while the position of Northern Ireland remains uncertain given the government’s apparent lack of scruple over playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, it is likely to do so for some time to come. A government whose response to crisis is to go absent and, otherwise, to give every sign of making it up as it goes along is singularly ill-equipped to undertake the ‘healing’ that a polarised society requires.

Brexit and Trump are, of course, inextricably linked in terms of rationales which explain the respective votes, the connections between Trump and Farage, and the financing of Brexit promoters in the UK and of Donald Trump by the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer. Brexit and Trump are, in both cases, the illegitimate offspring of climate change denialists and, for all that the ‘Russia Report’ does need to be released, the main failing of democracy in respect of Brexit is the extent to which Leave campaigns were funded by foreign interests. Further, there are parallels between the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit Party in the UK – and their implications for hollowed-out party organisation of the Republican Party, detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and of the Conservative Party in Britain.

The main concern for Levitsky and Ziblatt is party organisation and the health and vitality of US political parties and the party political process. The authors do incorporate the issue of right-wing and partisan media and they also look at the impact of non-party campaigns, such as Americans for Tax Freedom and Americans for Prosperity (Koch vehicles, both) – and there are parallels in the UK here, too – but the focus is the potential for the takeover of moribund party organisations by extremists.

But, of course, democracies are more than just about political parties. Democracies also die when people no longer feel that their voices are being heard (and that’s as true where mass, peaceful street protests, from the Iraq War to anti-Brexit in the UK’s recent history, have little discernible impact on the political process) and where people’s democratic participation becomes limited to doing no more than casting a vote in a ballot box every so often. Citizens’ assemblies, currently one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion, have some things to offer here. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t deal with this particular threat and neither do they include in their analysis the threat posed, in a global world, to nation state democracies by internationally-led campaigns of misinformation whose aim is to distort the political process – back, coincidentally, in the news today – and the pervasive, intrusive power of Facebook (made all the more threatening by its apparently neutral, ‘technical’ face). If democracy is all about ‘government by the people’ – and clearly it quite literally is – then international interests funding the operations of domestic campaigns and providing misinformation and misdirection represents a clear threat to those democracies and, therefore, a clear potential source of democratic death.

The absence of Lincoln’s famous quote from a book dealing with the crisis in US democracy is curious but, more than that, a book focused on the issue of failing democracies needs to address threats more broadly than the simple failure of party organisation to prevent the rise to power, within the democratic system, of an authoritarian demagogue.

#ReleaseTheRussiaReport

Election 2019 (2)

Disappointed, bruised and sore.

That a manifesto seeking to tackle social and economic injustice was rejected in favour of empty slogans; that lies, and the practise of lying, have been rewarded; that our democracy is incapable of dealing effectively with obfuscation and the deliberate avoidance of scrutiny; and that the healing which these nations which make up the UK need has been cast aside, to be replaced by further division, hatred and exploitation.

It was indeed a ‘grim’ night in which the balloon of my hope and optimism was punctured at about 22:01, before I finally called it a night just after 04:00. The only bright spot all night (there were two, really, but the failure of The Brexit Party to gain any seats, especially in Hartlepool, is rather meaningless in the circumstances) was the success of Matt Rodda in Reading East, the constituency of my birth. Rodda has been around for a while and his Tory opponent was new, and this might provide a partial explanation to his increased majority. However, a marginal drop in the Labour vote share seems to indicate that, whatever the situation nationally, Rodda – surely confronted with the same issues on his doorstep – is doing something right from which Labour might learn once its – essential – review gets underway.

Here’s a few initial thoughts about the implications of what happened last night.

1. Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020. There’s no way that this will not now take place. This was, after all, a Brexit election and Johnson’s determination to talk about nothing else than ‘get Brexit done’ – when he elected to speak at all, that is – clearly permeated into people’s consciousness, at least in key Tory target areas. Ultimately, this was a successful strategy, pains me though it does to say it. ‘Brexit, stupid’, as someone else might once have said, and keeping it simple, clearly worked.

However, we should note that Brexit remains a democratically-unpopular option. The votes cast for ‘leave’ parties added up to 14.98m, according to my quick calculations from the BBC election results website this morning, compared to a vote for parties committed to a re-negotiation/second referendum or remain of 16.63m (among the 16 largest parties attracting votes of 10,000+). So Johnson’s sloganeering was, across the UK as a whole, not successful. In the meantime, this therefore remains an utterly divided nation (note: the breakdown in favour of re-negotiate/remain is 53:47).

2. Labour’s pivot to re-negotiate to provide a Brexit which hit jobs and living standards less, and then to put this to a second referendum, was clearly not a success. It was either not understood or else it was dismissed – it doesn’t really matter at this point which. In hindsight – though some will claim foresight on this – this was perhaps only likely to work as part of a coalition (or understanding) between ‘remain’ parties. That was never going to happen and there is an argument that, looking at Brexit in isolation, Labour would consequently have been better on a platform that was, at least audibly, closer to one which ‘respected’ the 2016 referendum.

3. In the absence of any such understanding, tactical voting to keep the Tories out was a clear failure. The notion that tactical voting had more traction that it evidently did underpinned my optimism in my post below, as well as my anticipation of the fall of some big (Tory) guns. Neither happened. Evidence published only on Monday this week that people were quite attracted by the idea, though had little idea of the online tools available, ought to have provided sufficient warning (not least of the need to escape your own social media bubble once in a while). Nevertheless, it was not even close for any of the big guns – Raab, Duncan-Smith, Redwood and Johnson himself – and this looks a failure of the MRP technique which, at constituency level, had given gaps to the nearest challenger in these cases as low as one percentage point, whatever its apparent success at UK-wide level in predicting the scale of the Tory majority. In short, MRP got a little lucky.

4. We are heading for a constitutional crisis sometime in the life of this (up to) five-year mandate, once Brexit occurs. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum; yet Northern Ireland now has more Sinn Féin/SDLP MPs (the former of course not taking their seats in Westminster) than unionist ones, while the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland was 45% (a rather interesting figure in the light of the 2014 outcome of IndyRef1).

Much here depends on just what sort of government Johnson actually leads – and it is, by the way, a disgrace to democracy that Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor, can post on the BBC Live pages this morning, and having interviewed Johnson only a week last Sunday, that ‘The biggest question in British politics this morning is, who is Boris Johnson politically?’ (at 07:34, currently p. 5/21). A ‘softer’ Brexit than the one envisaged under the previous government would, to some degree, head off some aspects of this challenge, in the sense of minimising the impacts of a Brexit which left us isolated from the EU. Were we to end up at the end of the transition process without a sensible free trade deal with the EU – i.e. one which protected jobs, working conditions and environmental standards – then Brexit will increase these constitutional pressures.

In that context, there would be a clear argument under which lending a vote to a nationalist project, where the focus was a re-joining of international social and economic structures in the face of a disastrous Brexit, may well have merit in terms of protecting the Scottish working class against such impacts. The SNP has a platform of seeking IndyRef2 in 2020, but that’s not incompatible with the timetable under which a free trade deal with the EU would need to be approved. It’s also quite clear that the only free trade deal with the EU which can be negotiated in that timescale is one which effectively minimises the impact of Brexit. Whether Johnson can cast aside his erstwhile buddies in the ERG to deliver that remains to be seen. So, ‘wait and see’ before making any such pivot would be a wise move – but, for me, it remains a more substantial possibility than hitherto.

5. A rather thin Tory manifesto contained a particular hostage in its promise to ‘look at’ judicial review from the perspective of ‘ensuring that [it] is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays‘ (p. 48; emphasis added). This is a clear reference to the – evidently embarrassing – cases brought by anti-Brexit campaigners this summer (Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. That the cases were won against the government is evidently troubling were any such ‘look’ now to emerge with restrictions on the courts’ capacity to hold the executive to account. This is one of the essential checks and balances in any democracy and, where these are cut back, democracy will suffer. Any look at the example of Poland, where the governing party is attacking the judiciary, much to the consternation of at least the previous European Commission, is clearly illustrative. A UK outside the EU would, clearly, mean no such censure were the government to embark on such action after January 2020. This is clearly not the reason for Brexit, but a government that turns out to be hardline will see it as one of the bonuses of leaving.

In the meantime, I’m off to listen to some Smoove. Loud, I think.

Election 2019

This has certainly been one of the more interesting election campaigns in recent memory. By turns chaotic and mendacious, but nevertheless enthralling, I’m looking forward to an outcome on Friday morning which proves it (as well as to enjoying plenty of Portillo moments).

The last 24 hours has perhaps seen the worst of things as regards the dark arts with the beginning of the Tory advertising blitz via Facebook, coinciding with the re-generation of sock puppet accounts as a diversionary tactic to the horror of a boy lying on a hospital floor as there was no bed for him, and in the face of Johnson’s own dissembling and point blank refusal to look at the image when faced with it (now with 11m views…), coupled with a non-story about an adviser being punched.

From a policy point of view, there are two issues that need to be addressed here: firstly, the willing take-up of Dominic Cummings’s rouble-sourced bait by journalists who ought to know better; and secondly the dominance of the social media platforms, especially Facebook but also, albeit to a lesser extent, Twitter, in terms of the news we see and what, in a time-pressed world, we come to regard as truth.

Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg ought to know better, but rather than pin the blame on them in a conspiracy theory about the modern state of the BBC in the clutches of a vile government, I think the main problem lies with the failures of journalism under pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Before t’internet came along, the time pressures where a journalist had a story to break would be somewhat less and publishing timetables tended to lend more time for fact checking in advance of publication or broadcast. Nowadays, journalists making their living in the field, and who have a story but fear being scooped, tend to report everything and then – occasionally – backtrack when proved wrong. Evidently, that’s often too late once tweets and posts have been shared and then amplified via individual networks.

Journalists need to be less afraid of being scooped and to take greater time to establish the facts before engaging with their social media accounts – or at least to qualify their messages with an acknowledgment that the situation is still being checked. I for one am quite happy if the news comes to me fact-checked and accurate, if a little slower; although I acknowledge that this understates the adrenaline rush realised by those among us who are the ‘first’ to tell us something. We also need to break the consensus that people spreading such stories are not ‘sources’ in the accepted journalistic sense and can be identified in the public interest. That might, however, need a little more solidarity between journalists if the cosy relationship between spinners and relayers is to be broken.

Secondly, James Mitchinson, Editor of the Yorkshire Post, got it spot-on yesterday in his response to one reader who took issue with his paper’s coverage of the story of what happened at Leeds General Infirmary. In a discombobulating world, when we do not know who to trust and when we have been led actively to distrust those institutions to which we formerly looked for honesty, it is very easy to be led astray. This is of course where Facebook – particularly – comes in since it has scooped up much of the local advertising revenues on which local journalism used to rely and whose loss has starved local papers of resources and journalists. The dispute over job cuts at the Herald has much to comment on this, also.

The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but the unchecked abuse of its powers out in the wild can and should be better controlled, not least in terms of the potential for the manipulation of opinions during an election, as well as in terms of the stealing of identities and their use by/sale to hackers. When Facebook has such control but so little interest in exercising it responsibly – sock puppet accounts are as good as any other when it comes to the numbers proving continued growth to the investors – the only answer can be better regulation. Clearly it’s own – largely algorithm-based – actions to remove false accounts are not working and neither, does it seems, are its fraud reporting mechanisms (while Twitter’s are scarcely any better) while certainly it needs to have something in place which stops people impersonating and misrepresenting others and stealing data. This means that Facebook itself also has to put more of those advertising revenues into human intervention to ensure its user accounts are genuine.

(And the government needs to publish that Intelligence and Security Committee report into meddling in UK referendums and elections – it’s clearly already too late for this election, but there are lessons to be learned in respect of future ones.)

The Western Isles electoral seat – Scotland’s smallest, and a protected constituency under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 – was held in the last parliament by the SNP, with a majority of about 1,000 votes over Labour in second (and the rest nowhere). In Alison MacCorquodale, we have a good candidate from North Uist (and an active trade unionist, to boot) highly capable of building on the efforts of Ealasaid MacDonald in 2017 in making this a two-way, non-Tory marginal. Touring this southern end of the constituency at the weekend, the equal matching of red and yellow lamp-post favours was highly encouraging. All of which means I can vote Labour with both my heart and my head. Only Labour has the manifesto committed to ending austerity, re-building the NHS (and keeping Trump’s hands off it) and achieving real change for people.

Other people don’t have that luxury where a Labour candidate is neither the sitting MP nor the nearest challenger. If that’s you, and especially in those narrow marginals which will make a substantial difference to the outcome on Thursday, do vote for the candidate best placed to eject the Tory. There is a plethora of tactical voting websites to help you make your mind up, the latest addition being the @ledbydonkeys campaign to GetJohnsonGone. Others include Best for Britain’s tactical voting site Get Voting.

Do consult at least one of them and, even if you do, for one reason or another, have to hold your nose while putting your ‘x’ in that box, ensure that we wake up on Friday morning with a series of ‘Were you up when…?’ exits, Johnson gone, advisers with egg all over their faces and a future awaiting us in which we can together start to put right the things that have gone so wrong in the last nine years. Vote for hope.