The missing ghost at the Party Conferences

Over 400 delegates attended a fringe meeting addressed by the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry (Patrick now Lord Jenkin) and Education and Science (Norman, now Lord Tebbit) on the critical importance of IT to the UK economy at the Conservative Party Conference in 1982. Over twenty IT companies had stands outside to reinforce that message

Then IT was seen as the “metatechnology” of the future. Today it really does underpin society. But the only IT-related fringe meetings at the conference this year appear to be those on the need to balance the war against terror and civil liberties within the ippr , programme, on the perils of electronic voting from the Openrights Group and on Avoiding Computer Aided Catastrophe (alias the need for a joined up approach to information assurance), organised by the Conservative Technology Forum . Few ICT suppliers are exhibiting at the conferences and most no longer have any public affairs or political relations staff to send.

LIttle wonder we do not have well informed political debate on matters IT


Politics is said to be of little interest to the on-line generation, but “Order Order”, the blog run by the apltly named Guido Fawkes has a much large readership than Popbitch on the lives of celebrities. The posts to Guido are today (20th September) focussed on who is to blame for what followed when consumer confidence sank after hitting the Northen Rock. The implications for the on-line world could be equally profound but where will they be debated? If at all.

Preserving confidence in the on-line world as a safe and secure place to work, learn and play is crucial to the employment prospects of all who work in the ICT industries. And the next election will be fought in 80 or so constituencies where the sitting MP has a majority of rather less than the number of jobs at stake locally if that confidence falters: perhaps because on-line customers of Northern Rock had to barricade their bank manager in her office in order to withdraw their money after the web-site crashed.

How many Computer Weekly readers are helping consistuency MPs to understand that their re-election may depend on the votes at risk if government does not do what is necessary to ensure that the local access to the Internet is fit for the 21st century?

One obvious example is the need to remove unnecessary,illogical and unjust barriers like the business rating absurdity that blocks investment in network resilience standby facilities. These are essential to under-pin the just-in-time applications on which society now depends to ensure, for example, that food is delivered to your local supermarket, that you can pay for it and that, if it makes you sick, your doctor or hospital can access your patient records.

The need for action on this was flagged by the Broadband Stakeholders Group back in 2003. The lack of progress since was raised by one of the questioners to Stephen Timms when he launched the new BSG work programme yesterday. I should add that Stephen made a great speach and his audience, like me, were genuinely delighted to see him back.

The ippr meetings at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences give an opportunity to raise such concerns – provided they are not pre-occupied with the need to preserve civil liberties in the face of big brother. The Conservative Technology Forum meeting, 5.30 – 7.00 pm on 2nd October in the Louis Room of the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, also gives an opportunity for you to tell the shadow minister for E-Crime why he should take the issues very much more seriously, even though digitalis (finger trouble), mother nature (fire, flood and flu) and market panic (as with Northern Rock) may well still cause more damage than even the most organised criminal gangs – like those running the supposedly multi-million machine Storm Worm botnets.

But the Labour Party conference fringe meetings also give you the opportunity to tell ministers, not just their shadows, why the better use of IT is central to delivering all their other policy objectives – as used to be done at Conservative conferences in the early 1980s before the IT industry, like those it was then addressing, got delusions of grandeur.

And the issues to be addressed go well beyond the “dark side” of the Net.

We need to recapture the positive attitudes of the 1980s towards using ICT to meet the needs of business and society as a whole – and that is incumbent on those in the industry – not their audiences – political or otherwise.

But one of the “Old Chinese Curses” is, may you get what you wish for.

We wanted an IT “soap” to change attitudes – and we got “The IT Crowd”.

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I became addicted to IT oriented fringe meetings ten years ago, and like Philip, I regret the passing of IT lobbying at the Party Conferences. They seemed a good way for grass-roots activists to moan about the shortcomings of IT policy from their point of view. From 1995 until 2003, television masts were high on the agenda at PITCOM fringes. So was the lack of broadband in rural areas. That came up every year, whatever the official theme of the fringe was supposed to be.

This year there should be plenty of grass-root worries, made more urgent by the spread of YouTube, MySpace etc: child porn, cyber bullying, grooming, firms banning Facebook in office hours and so on. And of course there are the perennial moans from patients who are not yet getting any better care from the billions spent on NHS IT, and worries about whether the billions to be spent on ID cards will stop terrorism or improve public services.

But, as Philip says, there will be few fringe meetings where activists can express these worries.

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