Labour MP Jon Cruddas gave a speech this week that was barely reported in the press, but contained his party’s most significant statements yet about the role of digital and technology in a potential future Labour government.
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Cruddas may not be a household name, but he is the co-ordinator for Labour’s wide-ranging policy review, which will feed into the party’s manifesto for next year’s general election.
Part of that review is a look at digital government, led by Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for digital government.
The early days of Onwurah’s review spooked a lot of people with implied criticisms of the Government Digital Service (GDS). It seemed that Labour saw GDS as a Tory creation, and as such was not to be trusted. But that rhetoric has changed significantly.
In his speech, Cruddas instead suggested an even more influential role for GDS.
“Labour will share more power and responsibility with people,” he said.
“Increasing the power of local places by building collaboration amongst public services and organisations, and pooling funds to stop inefficiency and avoid duplication; Developing the Government Digital Service to drive change across government – standardising data, improving sharing between departments and encouraging innovation.”
That’s a powerful endorsement for the future of GDS.
But Cruddas’ speech also gave insights into the central role that digital could play in wider politics and policy-making. He said:
“Our traditional tools of policy making-money and top down government regulation stifle people’s agency and initiative, and are too often ineffective. Parties will need to build networks to connect with the great array of small-scale innovations in society that are pioneering new directions for policy. In the future reform will need to engage more with people’s behaviour and cultures and will mean mobilising people on the ground for change. The internet is changing the nature of the public sphere. It can be used to rebalance power between citizens and the market and between citizens and the state, but we will address the problems of concentrations of power, child safety, privacy and data security.“
Here are a few other relevant excerpts:
“A post-industrial economy is taking shape around our advanced manufacturing and the new information and communications technologies. The shift to a services economy is flattening out old, hierarchical command and control structures. Digital technology is unseating whole industries and workforces, and production is becoming more networked and disorganised. Our class system is being reconstructed. The disruption of technological change is greater than at any times since the industrial revolution.”
“We are just at the start of the internet revolution. Radical innovations in the generation, processing and transmission of information, will continue modernising the whole base of our economy. New services, products and markets will mean more knowledge, prosperity and opportunity. The web is breaking down barriers. Digital technology has transformed startup costs and it has never been easier to start and run your own business.”
“Our political parties cannot keep up with our complex and fast changing society. In the new economy, politics will be about innovation and participation; about networks, not hierarchies.”
“Just as in the age of steam and the age of the railways, our new digital age is radically changing society. But while rail transformed society it also created opportunities for the robber barons to monopolise and control it for their own good. We have to tackle concentrations of power, and make sure people have the skills and the abilities to take advantage of the internet. In the vanguards of the new economy there is a new productive force which is the ‘life of the mind’. There are new kinds of raw materials – the intangible assets of information, sounds, words, images, ideas – and they are produced in creative, emotional and intellectual labour. New models of production are using consumers and their relationships in the co-inventing of new ideas, products and cultural meaning. People no longer just want to consume the culture and products handed to them. Technology, from computer aided design to the new 3D printing, will provide individuals with the means to actively create culture and to pursue creative forms of labour. Individuals will be able to design and make the things they live with.”
That is perhaps the most digitally-aware and technology-positive speech I’ve heard from a top-level politician. If that sort of thinking feeds through into the Labour manifesto, it can only be a positive step.
Better still, you have to hope that if Labour start to use that sort of language more often – and in speeches that get more widely reported – it will prompt a response from the Conservative Party and raise the importance of digital in the whole election debate.
It has been a Tory government, after all, that has led the digital drive through GDS.
The IT community awaits the outcome of the Labour digital government review with interest. But we should all do what we can to encourage every party to be open and detailed about what our digital future means in a government under their leadership.