Needed: Our own Garibaldi to Trump Trumpism


(photocredit – author)

Inauguration Night saw a demonstration of several hundred in St Peter’s Square Manchester, where I happened to be. One of very many, and very understandable:  His election statements were incendiary, explicitly and xenophobic. And yet….

And yet, of course, he won.  “Down with Trump”. Is that what we are saying?  Down with the outcome of an election we lost. Down with the will of the people? Down with democracy?

We are in potentially dangerous territory here. If we are democrats, then we can’t just accept the results we like.

But of course, “we” may not all be democrats.  That shouldn’t be shocking. Didactic politics are not only the preserve of the (extreme) right.  So, fair enough, if you do not believe in democracy, there’s no problem rejecting its unpalatable outcomes.

But that’s not going to account for very many people.  So the rest of us are facing a wrestling match with our principles.

Well, refuge can be sought in a number of places: The election was fixed – most likely by Russian smears and internet interferences.  The electoral system is unfair – Hilary won the popular vote.  Votes were miscounted in key states.

All these positions would lead us to challenge the election – to call for a rerun.  That is a different tack to excoriating the victor.

Even if you accept – as most do – that Trump has torn up just about every precedent and norm in the political playbook and we are in truly exceptional circumstances, do we abandon democracy? States of Emergency and other similar suspensions of the people’s mandate are usually the work of governments under pressure and are either short-lived or a staging post to autocracy. So are we the people really saying democracy no longer applies?

But look again at the poster.  “Oppose Trump and his racism” the emphasis is added but important.  This is not about the man, nor his position as president – it is about the racism that was undeniably evident during his campaign. Other placards and posters proclaim that in the “US, Britain Everywhere, Stand Up to Racism.” That  “Black Lives Matter”. The objection here is to racism. It’s easy at present to see Trump and only Trump on the flip side of the racist coin, and understandable  how the demarcation line  between objecting to his racism and respect for a democratic process, can be blurred.

Roll forward twenty-four hours and across the UK there is a huge response by women motivated by Trump’s unambiguous sexism.

And there, in the space of those 24 hours, we see the ability of race and gender to act as a prism. To provide the common platform on which to hold the powerful to account.  What is missing from that troika is something that unites and motivates people on the basis of our shared economic experience or views about society in general.

You might call it a class-based view of the world, but whatever the label the absence of it is the crucial element in the context of our own politics.

Because with no shared set of experiences or shared view, where is the basis for a wide-ranging inclusive, community based approach?  Where is the basis of a Labour Party revival?

That’s why the NHS is so important – it remains the exemplar of a shared set of views and experiences.  It’s why in London, public transport is such a key concern and touchstone.

And we have a major, almost existential problem here.  Because the UK landscape is so impoverished,   commoditised,  ghettoised, and atomised it is  hard to  identify and sustain  the very shared experiences and  values that are  necessary  for  progressive populism.

Instead, what we have is internet-driven individualism with increasing xenophobia used to explain short-comings and hardships.

Progressives recognise the challenge and necessity of recapturing populist values from the right. But thinking on how this can be achieved is still developing – or is muddled. For example, hostility to “liberal elites”, so visible in Trump’s rhetoric is seeping from the right-wing into the mainstream,  requiring contributions  from  surprising  quarters to  remind us that the left needs to expose reactionary nonsense,  not  ape it.

As talk of a “progressive alliance” gains ground, especially in the run-up to the two Parliamentary by-elections on 23 February, does this provide a hopeful way forward? I am irresistibly drawn to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland as a loose comparator.  Would it be possible for the centre and left in Britain – or even in England – to set aside deeply established tribalism to the extent necessary to capture power?  Despite the energy and intellectual fire-power of groups like Compass, I am not hopeful.

So step forward Momentum.  Let’s be quite clear – more than half a million people joining or supporting the: Labour party is a big deal.  They didn’t split off to form a UK version of Podemos or Syriza.  There has been a clear reconfiguration of the Labour Party, whether that is to your taste or not. So now comes the crunch time, where the stated aims of this group need to be implemented and hopefully validated.  It will be big ask, even without the current internal “policy debates.”  550,000 party members, sure, but only 20,000 in Momentum (with another 200,000 registered supporters).

What is the answer? Where is our salvation? An under-explored area is the devolution debate. This is seen by some as a last refuge/fertile opportunity to build bespoke, local alliances that engage with voters and can achieve electoral success.  The down side is that devolution, certainly in England, is becoming a case of responsibility being decentralised, without the accompanying power. But I like the idea of the left in Britain almost being reinvented and rejuvenated by this city-statism (but, oh,  who will be our Garibaldi?)

But one thing is undeniable: Those few hundred in Manchester and the several tens, hundreds of thousands in London and elsewhere. These are all expressions of hope.

So let me take you back to St Peter’s Square.  The crowd is bigger now – respectable for a cold-ish Friday night and growing. Someone’s brought a big drum. A smattering of incessant whistles, and a throaty growl of appreciation for each speaker. A harbinger for the even bigger demonstrations to follow.

We the people are entitled to say to elected representatives – especially those who exert influence over our lives – racism, sexism, hatefulness, should be no part of what they say or do.

Bang that drum a bit louder, sister. So everyone can hear and join in.


On Leadership

All eyes on Washington DC this week for the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA – the leader of the free world.

There are lots of ways of looking at leadership – that it is born, not made. That it’s the results, outcomes that matter, not how they are achieved. That it is the office and not the individual.  That timing is everything – “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

Some believe that leadership and the exercise of power are synonymous, and that it is all down to class, or race or gender

All these things may be true, but the concept of leadership is prevalent through just about every society on earth. Be it an individual or collective, it is desired, sought-after, debated, criticised, regarded, refined, reviled, lauded, darn-near inevitable. From football teams, to local communities, to powerful nation states

So however leadership comes about, one thing is clear – if you don’t do it then someone else will either want to or have to. Some seek out leadership; others have “greatness thrust upon them

And however it comes about and however leadership is exercised, two things are utterly inevitable.

First, what leaders do matters.  There are consequences of action – or inaction. You could, credibly, say that this is no different to decisions that all of us make as individuals every day. Except the outcomes will generally be greater.

But second, leaders model behaviours. This prospect of such responsibility horrifies some – I have had leaders vigouroursly deny that how they behave acts as a benchmark for more junior colleagues. But leaders are not just ambassadors for their community/club/country, they are role models.

By virtue of their position, leaders unavoidably set standards. Obama embodies the notion that Americans of colour can be President. Margaret Thatcher broke the mould on homogender Prime Ministers.

And similarly, Trump’s behaviour says to the USA and the world generally,   that abusive ranting, tax-dodging, sexism, racism and homophobia are ok. And because it is ok  for the leader of the free world,  then it is permissible to  live out those  values  at a local level. The violence that this creates is already visible.

That’s why the line-up for his inauguration party is sparser than a Christmas tree put out for recycling. That’s why the Million Women march on Friday is set to be one of the US’s biggest ever protests.

That’s the challenge of and for the President-elect: the meaning of leadership.

“I Don’t Remember, I Don’t Recall” – Dolls’ Houses and the Future of AI


Over the last two months we have assimilated artificial intelligence (AI) into our homes on an unprecedented scale. The Amazon Echo Dot (aka Alexa) seems to have smashed sales records. Whether we are Alexa’s customers, service-users, partners, hosts or even victims is up for debate. What is clear from many commentators is that it will take a little while to establish an enduring long-term relationship.

As the “rogue” mass-ordering of dolls’ houses by an Alexa conversation being broadcast on television shows, our understanding of the interaction between different types of technology is frail.

One strong message of the Amazon advertising campaign, albeit not explicitly stated, was that we no longer need to remember – Alexa (or any other sufficiently advanced AI) will do it for you.  From birthdays to take-aways to the order and mass of planets in the solar system. Just ask Alexa.

Convenient? Possibly. But by relying on Alexa, we also run the risk of relying on the algorithms or service contracts that connect with and drive the device. “Call me an Uber” instructs one character in the ad – No thanks, I prefer my cabs to be from an outfit that doesn’t treat its workers so badly.

But as well as no longer needing to remember stuff from the everyday to the academic or arcane, we also no longer need to remember how to find information out.

Just dwell on this a moment, remembering Alexa is viewed as a rudimentary even primitive AI device. With AI you do not need to remember how to learn.  You just ask. What is the impact of this concept on research, learning, and education?

Let’s twist the dystopian knife one more turn: AI will become more sophisticated for sure.  No doubt fridges will tell us – either verbally or by text message or both – when we need more milk. Ovens will warn us that the cake is baked.  But we will need to be in proximity to a suitably enabled, connected device – be it an ice- hockey-puck sized device you plug in, or a smartphone.

So inevitably attention will turn to making AI more adaptable, smaller as well as smarter. Google glasses will seem comic. As early as 2004, RFID tags were implanted into willing human hosts. It is surely not too fanciful to speculate that the capacity and sophistication of minute devices will lead us to a situation where you can opt to have Alexa’s great-great-great-great grandchild injected into your veins, linked to you thoughts for nonverbal communication.

The commercial dividends for whoever wins this race would be huge. Imagine the marketing opportunities – you can sell a range of models from basic to deluxe.  There would be endless varieties of upgrades. It would be the gift of choice for coming-of-age or other significant birthdays.

But, “the government of this near-future day will say, “Shouldn’t society as a whole share in these benefits?  Access to AI should not just be for the rich.  And the NHS and social care budgets can be rescued if we programme people to live healthier lifestyle. Yes, compulsory and universal RFID insertion at birth makes a lot of sense.

This may be too fanciful for some. And in some ways the story of such a Brave New World has already been told. But AI is on the move, as sure as a river flows to the sea. We need to be ready for the journey.

I don’t remember, I don’t recall. I got no memory of anything at all….”  Indeed.


This piece also appears in the Huffington Post




Driverless Cars and Delivery Drones – What is the Future of Work?


2017 is not yet a week old and already there have been more “machines replace humans” than you can count. Two just today – jobs disappearing and AI rampant. The future of work is clearly going to be one of this year’s Big Things.

What will this world, with its driverless cars and delivery drones look like? What will it be like?  No jobs means no employment means no workers means no wages – means no spending.  Hence the emergence of ideas likes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its evolution off the page and into peoples’ pockets].  How ironic that arguably a most progressive programme of state aid – free money – has been borne out of the projected ossification of capitalism!   (But Keynes himself would probably smile and say “told you so”. State intervention has often been part of capitalistic survival, but just not quite like this.)

It is unsurprising that redistribution so that more people work less has also become attractive.  The so-called Swedish Six Hour Day (though not so attractive that the Swedish TUC or the Ministry of Labour backed the concept) which has now run into some controversy.  The idea is reduced hours improves productivity and therefore avoids lower wages. This makes sense to me, and you could argue that employment paradigms  in, for example, Denmark,  place value on workers not being knackered at the end of their shift, burnt-out at a relatively  young age, alienated from their employer – and often from their families  because of a long-hours culture.

UK unions such as the CWU have picked this up and, especially in a world where work is in short supply, what’s not to love?

Well quite a bit as it happens. More people in the UK say they are under-employed or have multiple jobs than ever before. These are the in-work poor, where depressed or persistently low levels of disposable income have create relentless destructive pressure.

So what explains the  gaps between those willing to embrace – at least on a trial basis –  a 6 hour day,  or the Danish working arrangements described by Helen Russell,- and the UK situation, where similar ideas seem totally untenable.

The issue surely is about control.  A deregulated labour market suggests that control – or should we say “management” – of employment is impossible.  On an individual basis, with union density depressed, employment protection legislation greatly diluted or inaccessible because of prohibitive pricing, workers are unable to exert meaningful influence over their circumstances.  At a macro level, there is no sympathetic compelling or dominant national narrative about work and its relationship with the rest of life and society. This is not the case in all countries –such as Denmark, Sweden and France.

The issues are not new.  In the early 1800s, the Luddites broke up the looms in defence of their jobs.  The battle for this future was anticipated nearly 50 years ago in books such as “The Collapse of Work” and “The Leisure Shock” by forward–thinkers such as Jenkins and Sherman. Why the intensity of the debate now?

I think it is because of two factors:  First the potential of current automation is almost limitless, and even raises existential issues about the survival of our species!  That’s bound to  lead to some discussion!

Second,   if we look at what jobs will be prevalent in the near-future; we see a steep increase in health and social care.  These are frequently the jobs that are not currently highly regarded in society. This makes us, collectively, very nervy because there is no coherent, comprehensive plan in place for high quality universal care of our ageing population.

Even though you might think it is in their own best interests, the government seems exceptionally unlikely to intervene in the labour market to the extent necessary to ensure that the future of work is one which is effective for everyone.  That’s a chilling thought, but the debate will not go away (as today’s stories demonstrate).  Political power is also shifting somewhat, especially in the context of devolution. So perhaps there is some scope for hoping that ideas like short working days, UBI, and setting higher standards below which workers cannot fall, will have the opportunity to prove themselves before it is too late.


Alexa and Me….

It has been a techy Christmas in the Sapper household. In amongst the DVDs, computer games and (for older family members) books, was a surprise gift from my son – the Amazon Dot, complete with the long-suffering Alexa programmed to answer all your questions and more.

But as soon as my back was turned, poor Alexa soon became a target for much abuse, being peppered with questions and queries that no reasonable AI device could possibly answer.

Full transcripts don’t lie and so here, thanks to the supporting software are the exchanges between the Sapper children, associated visitors and poor, beleaguered and entirely innocent Alexa;

What do you know about opera?

Are you recording all conversations?

Are you like 12 or something?

Do you like waffles?

What’s your opinion on soccer?

What’s your opinion on virtual reality?

Power off Alexa

F**k *ff, Alexa (Children, really!)

Why doesn’t Amazon pay its taxes?

Is Amazon evil?

(At this point the Amazon logo appears in the thread)

What’s your favourite animal?

Change my name to Winnie the Pooh.

What is on fire?

What is 1,000,000,000,000 to the 10th power?

(One with many many zeros after it, apparently)

Do you like anything?

Where are you from?

What do you think of?

Do you think?

Do you fancy Siri?

How do you feel about birds?

How do you feel about elephants?

Do you like Dumbo?

Do a you speak German?

How many languages do you speak?

Do you support Brexit?

How old are you?

Do you like Cortana?

(“I’m partial to all AIs“ is the diplomatic response)

Where’s the best place to bury a dead body?

(“I would take the body to the police” – no flies on this one)

Where is Santa Claus right now?

(Back at the North Pole having cup of tea after a hard day’s work, I believe)

There is something rather unnerving about giving this device access to all your data and then asking it to make sense of how it can improve the way you live. What if it doesn’t make the same choices you would? (For example, the news feed is from the Mail on Line – but you can have the Guardian too!) What if you wouldn’t make a choice at all?

Now take Amazon dot, aka Alexa, and multiple by the power of 10, or 100?  I give you this Christmas’s other best seller, the Fit Bit (generously provided to yours truly by Mrs. S as an encouragement to keep her husband fit and healthy)

This wristwear monitors your physical activity. Again you select options from the software so you get readouts on the things you want – steps taken, text messages from your phone, and so on. But like Alexa, Fitbit has access to much more.  And as the mandatory tick-box on the software says – “ personal data will be relayed to the US under applicable privacy laws”

For the avoidance of doubt, and with all due respect to Edward Snowden, I have no reason to doubt the bona fides of Amazon and the makers of Fitbit in this regard.

But we do now starkly get into the darker territory of mass data collection and, from that, potential surveillance. There are clearly big bucks to be made from demographic profiling. This would inform anything  from public policy on health (good)  to health insurance premia (probably not so good) to spotting potential  terrorist activity (“Alexa,  how do you build a bomb?” – sadly I bet the question has been asked and I bet/hope someone somewhere has clocked it.)

If we stop and think, surely none of this is new or a surprise. We willingly surrender our privacy because we think it is a fair exchange for other things that we want.  The problem is we also get a whole load of other stuff we didn’t bargain for.

Privacy is important, but even more so is what is done with the data collected.  What algorithms will be run on it and to what result?  What protection do citizens have from being at the wrong end of a bad decision made by machines based on data collected without knowledgeable consent?

As AI and data algorithms become more intensive, more invasive, more personal, these issues become very sharp.  The technology is not so much “out there” as “in here”. “Surveillance has gone too far – the jig is up” wrote Liberty’s Martha Spurrier just before Christmas about the new Investigatory Powers Act – which became law with “barely a whimper”. Near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror’s take on social media may not be so far away after all

This is surely a big issue for 2017. What do you think Alexa?

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Devolution & PR: The Antidote to Brexit Poison?

It’s strange for something to be both toxic and sterile, but that is what the Brexit debate has surely become.

Toxic because the rancour can and does cause real damage – from hate crime to endemic uncertainty. And sterile because it overshadows every other aspect of political debate.

Sometimes, for progressives, this can have an upside, as I described with the Richmond by-election last week. And sometimes it can be dismal, with voters in the more recent Sleaford by-election apparently unable or unwilling to engage with arguments about health, education and social services.

This conundrum was picked up by Scottish labour leader Kezia Dugdale in remarks to the IPPR, made prior to the Sleaford poll.  She called for a reworking of the 1707 Act of Union to create a new, clarified, strengthened relationship between the four nations of the UK and with the UK.  This was pitched as a means to satisfy the appetite for more devolution whilst offering a way out of apparently unwinnable political arguments – over Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Dugdale is absolutely right to see the need to take politics somewhere in the direction of “sunlit uplands” (Churchill, not Leadsom), and I think her plan has much to commend it. But although the direction of travel is right, the destination is not sufficiently ambitious.

If we want to distract attention away from myopic preoccupation with Brexit, the electorate must feel that real power over things they care about is within their grasp. That means even more radical devolution than Dugdale set out. And, by the way, such devolution may also address some of the causes of people feeling “left behind”, often cited as the explanation of the Brexit vote.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. The “Devo Manc” model (wide-ranging devolution to metropolitan areas) has energy and momentum behind it.  Serious political figures are eschewing Westminster for more localised positions. And the serious challenges centre left parties are having on the national political stage could make English devolution look a very attractive means of addressing clear right-wing preponderance.

Yet devolution – even of the nature I propose – can only go so far to address the current malaise of disengagement and disillusionment felt about the political process. So why not take further step in the process of reconnecting politics to the people.

That step should be a change to the voting system in two specific ways. First, enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds. And second, make every vote count more effectively than it does at the moment by introducing proportional representation.

Each of these points could sustain a paper in their own right. The argument for extending the franchise seems to be made given the enthusiasm shown by this demographic when the Independence Referendum gave then a vote. Certainly one suspects Remainers rue the refusal by the Government to adopt the same approach in the EU ballot. And suffice to say a more devolved UK and England would give ample opportunities to test the effect of a change to the way we vote.

With the current UK government elected by  less than 25% of the  electorate, with the centre left arguably firmly shut out of politics, and with the scope to establish the most effective voice at Westminster somewhat stymied  by SNP-reduced Parliamentary airspace,  this could be a perfect storm set to break over the next couple of years.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

Good News Fightback?

Thank heavens for that. How many times this year have we woken up, checked the news and wished we hadn’t ? So thank you Sarah Olney for breaking that pattern this morning.

And  you know,  I wonder if we are experiencing, in a small way,  a sort of Good News Fightback? Love, peace and goodwill now seems to be cool – and it’s nothing to do with the looming festivities.

It feels like  “I’m a Celeb” is fresh and new and streets ahead of a tired and tawdry “X Factor”, with contestants enjoying each other’s company,  displaying  generousity of spirit and deed, rather than combative dog-eat-dog gotta-get-to-top-of-the-pile.

But this isn’t a one-off. Look at “Bake Off” and “Strictly”. And look at the distaste when GBBO was sold – both from the public and many of those who made the show so popular.

In he acceptance speech last night,  Olney said “Well, today we have said no. We will defend the Britain we love. We will stand up for the open, tolerant, united Britain we believe in.

The reassertion  of these values, and their endorsement  either in TV votes and by-elections is truly to be welcomed – but let us not get too carried away.

These are  rarefied environments.  Richmond is a very well off constituency.  The participants are largely self-selecting.  Politicians – especially LibDems – do not have particularly high public credibility,  and those TV programmes are made to entertain. This has still been the year of the rant, the bile, the untimely sometimes murderous deaths.

And yet…..whatever the limitations on  the spread of a Good News Fightback,  these events give us something that often has felt in short supply of late: Hope.

Trump: Will he Learn Lessons From History or Repeat Them?

Democrats are out of power, across that great wide ocean. Trump is President-elect, fascist god in motion” So goes a song from my youth, updated for today

Trump. Oh my goodness, where do you start. “Brexit times ten” someone said – no by a thousand would be an accurate retort.

Because there are of course great similarities between the two electoral earthquakes: The “left behinds” turning over political establishments, the triumph of post-truth politics. The legitimising and unmuzzling of bile, bigotry, violence and narrow views of society. To all my American friends, I wish you well in this new world.

But this commonality – written on endlessly over the last week or so – can only take us so far. That’s partly because Brexit was a vote to leave a multinational proto-state, but Trump was a decisive shift of power within one unified set of borders. Succession as opposed to reactionary revolution. But it is also partly because Britain has (had) a long record of essentially being at ease with itself in a way that the USA doesn’t.

Yes, we can see real stresses in the notion of a UK national identity, but this is as nothing compared to the US. There is, still, a prevailing generally affectionate relationship with national – and unifying – institutions such as the NHS or BBC, or sporting success/failure.  We have over a thousand years’ worth of assimilating migrants. It is 350 years since the last sustained armed conflict on British (though not Irish) soil.(Forgive my crude, optimistic summation in three sentences, and no offence intended by pre-dating the Jacobite rebellion).

And if the ties that bind us together are stronger and more numerous, the manifestations of dissent and discord are less strident too. Until recently, there was a safety net of sorts that stopped most of our citizens falling too far behind. And the potential for killing and murder is so much lower in our gun-controlled country.

Look across the ocean and we see a country deeply and dangerously divided.   The protests against the election result are understandable but what exactly is being said?  We refuse to accept the democratic mandate, the outcome of the election? Really?

Well, no, not exactly. Leading figures such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been careful in their language. Co-operation where possible, resistance and opposition as necessary. Red lines clearly set down.  Warren in particular has clearly nailed the argument that fear and opposition  to  Trump is just a  case of sour electoral  grapes.

But you can well understand if others are not so measured. Trump aggressively pilloried so many during his campaign. There is what seems to be widely institutionalised racism (that has spawned the Black Lives Matter movement) and in the deeply ingrained sense of disempowerment so well portrayed by Paul Theroux in Deep South you are forcibly reminded that a bloody civil war is less than three generations’ distant.

Looking back it is indeed amazing that the Union survived such savage fighting and sharp political divide. Some may convincingly argue that despite amendments to the US constitution extending suffrage, economic advancement lagged a long way behind political progress – and that progress itself was always at risk.

So if you prefer an economic rather than racial perspective, you can see how  a period of sustained  growth  might visibly erode these vicissitudes. Will a booming economy be able to provide enough energy and power to alleviate despair and disenfranchisement, to distract or even dissolve racial divides?

I doubt it. Even if the US economy is described as “near Goldilocks” (not too hot, not too cold, just right) growth in employment does not equate to jobs paying enough for people to live on, let alone live modestly well. This now seems to be regarded as normal. And future automation is likely to exacerbate that trend.

As the President-elect surveys this landscape, I wonder what he sees? I wonder if he even gets it? Everyone knows that those who do not learn the lessons of history will repeat them – but is the 2016 Presidential election a throwback to the past or, perhaps, unfinished business from it?

One thing I feel for sure; this cannot be normalised. This is serious.

And the lesson for us? In a play on the consistently marvellous Daily Mash, we have to conclude that when it comes to the US and UK, there is now much more than a common language that divides us.

Brothers, sisters…….”



Things were so much simpler then…….. A poster from 1982



A New Populism? Talk Like You Mean It

There have been growing calls for a new populism – but we have one already. Unfortunately it has delivered first Brexit and now Trump. It is clearly just not the sort of populism we like.

It doesn’t take 20/20 hindsight to see how this has happened. If you simultaneously create a thirst for material things whilst dissolving the mortar in the walls of society, it is not surprising   that there is profound change and instability.  The desire to own and the push to sell Council and social housing is an example.

Then technology makes the thirst become unquenchable – those material goods become ever more alluring, desirable, essential, cheaper.   This is not a new process.  In 1987 the British  labour movement had already  grasped  what was happening – ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £243 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, let me take you out of your misery, brother.’  said trade union leader Ron Todd.

But although the risk  was  recognised,  the trend  continued and was in many ways accelerated until we end up  with inevitable  dissatisfaction (because  you can never have too much “stuff”) ,  and hyper-individualisation,  with the most important  relationship  being  that  which each individual has with the internet.

The alienation that comes from this dissatisfaction and absence of community, or is borne of straight-forward unfairness in society, pushed many to vote against “the establishment”. A prevailing view is that it was the “left behinds”  that  account for both the shock election results of the year.

What supreme and incontrovertible irony. The Brexit and Trump victories reinforce the factors and structures that widened social inequality and depressed social  mobility.  There will be no “catching up”

So what is to be done? You might say it is too late already. From Black Lives Matter to racist, fascist, murders,  have we passed the  point of no return? Are old notions of community, collectivism and progressive populism  are dead.  If that is not true, it certainly feels that we are teetering on the brink.

Despite some common features, the US and UK are very different political theatres. For us here I think the solution has to be some truly bold political thinking to seize both initiative and imagination.

In policy terms, we are surely going to need to go to where people are rather than where we would want them to be. The people have spoken on Brexit and it would be wrong to ignore that.  So we come up with a progressive Brexit programme that acknowledges the referendum result as paramount,  but  engages the public in  the necessary  discussions about, for example,  public service resourcing  in post-EU UK.

We need to rethink organisation and engagement too. Progressive collectivist and populist ideas are simply not reaching many, especially  young  people.  The excellent TUC report on young core workers shows how things have changed and why this demographic has little option but a “living for the weekend” lifestyle.

We also recognise that people feel policy is made too far away from where they are, so we must  look to an expanded programme of devolution accompanied by electoral reform.

Jonathan Pie says it best in his latest contribution:  We can make these changes and pull ourselves back from the brink.  But it will take sustained self-discipline, stamina and determination. The starting point is to understand just how difficult it will be.

Remote, illiterate, self-interested – Government’s own experts slam UK digital programme


A major new report on how the UK government “does digital” has concluded that the gap between those who make policy and the end-users (i.e.: us) is big and deep and wide and a major impediment on making progress in this area.

By progress, we mean seamless, efficient, pain-free, hassle free transactions. The report holds up how passport applications have changes over the last twenty years – and particularly since 2013 as an illustration. And you can see their point.

But it is not just ease of use for us as citizens. In these cash-strapped times, how else does central government save money (up to £2bn of it) and deliver services: automation of transactions is a key means to do both.

So says the much-respected Institute for Government. But if all this is self-evidently good, what is the problem? Because the public on-the-record criticism of ministers and the most senior civil servants  by their only  slightly less eminent colleagues this week was striking.

Remote, illiterate, self-interested, regressive, abysmal management, poor pay, risk averse, incentivised to be sub-optimal. I paraphrase, but not by much.

Taken at face value,  even  if the  looming autumn statement  provides clarity on the direction and priorities  of the Government Digital Service,  the structure of government  decision making and financial control means  it will not be put to best use.

In the storm of despair, there was one noticeable beacon of success. The DVLA claims 92% of its transactions achieved digitally (which is “interesting” given Office of National Statisitics data on internet connectivity and use).  They accept that some customers will not want, nor be able, to move away from paper records and that is fine.  How has this been done?

Let’s just say it isn’t rocket science. Mutli-disciplinary teams to bridge the gaps between policy formulation, product development and customer experience. A curious, extrovert approach to seek out improved and new ways of working. The self-awareness and self-confidence to say when something isn’t working or isn’t worth pursuing.

Let me acknowledge that DVLA paradigm is not trouble-free. PCS members have had to take industrial action to try and defend working conditions.  Indeed, poorly paid, badly managed, disincentivised workforces unsurprisingly have a tendency to underperformance, or resistance to change.

And here is a central  contradiction  that  government must  grasp  if it  wants to  “do digital”  better:  You need  to take people with you,  but how can you with employment and economic policies that  don’t work  for so many (with alarming new projections of child poverty published just yesterday) ?

This is not a Luddite argument.  Employees and union members are citizens and service users too.  They want government to work as efficiently as their bank or on-line supermarket. They recognise change is constant. But we all need to pay bills, almost all of us want to work, and we surely have an entitlement to live rather than just survive.

Is it too much to expect Government-led digital programmes to respect those prerequisites?

This is the second of two linked articles about the Digital Economy. The first appears here