Labour 'eLord' describes his vision

Parry Mitchell has been described as Labour's "e-lord". Appointed a working peer in May, he has played a key role in building the...

Parry Mitchell has been described as Labour's "e-lord". Appointed a working peer in May, he has played a key role in building the party's IT campaigning tools. He talks to Paul Mason about his vision for e-politics and e-government

Labour working peer Parry Mitchell is a new boy in the Lords. When he joined, in May, he found that his "office" was a breezy lobby full of ancient benches and oak tables. With laptop at the ready, he asked if he could connect: an usher pointed to a three-pin electrical socket. Eventually he resorted to an illicit mobile phone covered by a discreetly placed copy of the Financial Times keeps his laptop linked to the world outside Westminster.

Mitchell is chairman of IT leasing company Syscap. Behind the scenes he has played a key role in putting together the IT at the heart of Labour's formidable campaign machinery. When he arrived at Labour HQ, he says, there was, "a four-year-old Mac in one corner, an Amstrad in another and the whole thing was disjointed".

"We put together a structure which got some excellent people working for the party and technically got some good tie-ups with business partners. And I think the Labour Party has been able to develop a very exciting and interesting product which I hope will come into its own in the next election."

Can the party's campaign really be described as a product? "It is a product," he insists. "In the first conversation I had with the general-secretary, I said that a political party is in the information business. That took him back a bit. I said you take in information and you send it out. If you can do it better than the other guy, that's going to help."

The most famous bit of Labour's IT set-up is the Excalibur "rebuttal" system that keeps MPs armed with facts about their political opponents. But Mitchell thinks there are far more interesting developments ahead.

"Most parties have voter identification but we're going to be very sophisticated. Just look at the elections in the US to see how targeted everything is. We are seeing parties use computers to get to voters and address the issues that are important too. The coming election is going to be interesting, but the one after that - 2005 or 2006 - I expect could be won or lost on the Internet.

"By then we are going to have people in the age group 35 and under, who are used to using the Internet. They are going to be hugely unexcited about getting some scrappy bit of A5 literature to do with issues that don't even concern them.

"Political parties are going to identify people and say 'You live in this postal area, this is your postal code, we know quite a bit about you. We're going to direct our policies to you. So if you're in your mid-30s, we're going to talk about schools. But if you're over 60, we're not going to talk about schools."

Isn't the electorate involved in an unequal bargain since its access to public life through the Internet is very basic, but politicians' access to information about them is very sophisticated?

"The second issue is really important," says Mitchell. " I think Labour - and I suspect all other parties - will want to direct personalised messages to people. Instead of giving a blanket policy statement, they will want it to become personalised. Technology enables that to happen."

Speaking before the recount debacle in the US presidential elections, Mitchell said future UK elections would be even more Internet-oriented than the 2000 US ballot.

"It's going to be much more targeted, people are going to have messages coming up on their screens. And I would like to feel that the voters will be able to question their MP or the candidates on issues and be able to get replies to those questions. The days of knocking on people's doors are going to change. Nobody's ever in: you're always knocking when Coronation Street's on or the kids want their supper, so people don't usually want to get involved in a political dialogue. That's all going to change."

Mitchell had just returned from a fact-finding visit during the US election and cites the turn-outs in UK elections as pressing reasons use the Internet to revitalise democracy.

"People don't vote despite their good intentions. It's a bad weather day; they get home, the kids are screaming; the husband's late; they're late; the trains have broken down. So at the end of the day, it's 8pm, you've got an hour left and you think, 'what difference does one vote make?' If you could sit there and vote with your mobile phone, set-top box, TV or computer and it was secure, why shouldn't you. Communities are changing. I think lots of people, especially young people, don't know where their local school is to vote."

With the opportunities of e-politics there also come threats to the status quo: will people start to demand electoral parity and go for referendums? Will parties use the Web to get around limitations on party political spending? And what about the legal restrictions on the content of political campaigns: surely the Web is going to blow all that wide open?

"You could spend £1 trillion on party political broadcasts now," says Mitchell. "There are no restrictions at all. What's restricted is how much you can spend as a candidate in your constituency. But you're absolutely right, it's blown apart. Because if you've got the e-mail addresses of everybody in the constituency, you can send them e-mail ad nauseam for nothing. Whereas before you had the printing bill, now you can get a beautiful PDF file that you can zap across to people, they can print it out if they want to, and it doesn't cost a penny."

Mitchell cites the success of the Greens in getting their "niche message" across as proof that the Internet is a leveller in politics rather than a factor that accentuates power inequalities. "I think the Internet for a political party is a bit like the Internet for small businesses. It actually removes some of the inhibitions, it enables the economies of scale that only big companies used to have."

But in its ability to allow parties to target the electorate, won't the Internet do the same as customer segmentation tools in business - and allow a bottom layer to be discarded as irrelevant? Won't it accelerate social exclusion instead of promoting inclusion?

"Yes," admits Mitchell. "You see it at the moment in these US elections. You can see the candidates spending all their time in the key states, because they are going to be the ones on which this election rests. In each of those states, there are key people - and they are going to swing it one way or another. And if you can contact and isolate those people, that's where you'll be targeting. Politicians, like everybody else, are going to concentrate their efforts where they're going to get the most reward."

Education

Despite the danger of deepening the political and social divide, Mitchell is convinced that Labour is on the right track in emphasising education as the sphere where the Internet can have a lasting social impact. He cites a school in the Midlands he visited where, despite extreme social deprivation and drugs in the area, they hadn't had a single laptop stolen even though children were taking them home in their bags to do homework every night. Not only the children but also parents and teachers had bought into the Internet-working ethos.

"The first thing I'd really say is, if I could criticise my own Government, one laptop per five children in primary schools is not enough. There's only one target: one laptop per child, renewed every three years. Everybody has to have one."

Mitchell's big project is the Knowledge Network - a knowledge management scheme across Whitehall departments that had just undergone a soft launch when we spoke. They had 32,000 hits on day one and 150,000 in week one. "I'm feeling pretty excited about that," he says.

He is excited about the potential of e-government in general. "We need to get rid of the situation that you have to fill in the same information over and over, whether you are licensing your car or getting your birth certificate or signing on for whatever it happens to be - it's madness - absolute nonsense. The solution is a citizens' portal where all this information about you is stored, and it just helps you through it.

"Blair's goal is that, by 2005, all government services must be online. They've got 31% already in that position and they want to get 70% by 2002. Needless to say the last 30% is going to be the tough one."

Mitchell believes that UK society will be remarkably unresistant to e-transformation. When I ask him to identify obstacles to the e-economy he has to think hard, but then I mention Westminster.

"Oh, this place. That's my number one tirade in life: I want to have a wireless network in this place. Two megabit feeds, portable computers. I suspect that I've got a job on my hands. But why not? Why shouldn't this be a centre of technological excellence? Just because it's old doesn't mean it can't be transformed."

Mitchell thinks rolling out e-government across Whitehall faces "a huge cultural problem". He adds, "It's also a huge problem in my own company where we're introducing e-business. It depends on your attitude in life. Some people feel threatened by these things; the way to overcome the threat is, of course, to educate people and to actually say to them, 'I think this is going to make your life a lot easier and actually it's fun and exciting'."

In Tony Blair's launch of the UK Online strategy he promised that Britain would not repeat "40 years of relative economic decline" due to slow technological investment. Is UK business up to that challenge? Mitchell thinks so.

"I think there's a cultural problem, especially in SMEs. I think there's a lot of people out there that if there was a red button in front of them, and they could push it and the Internet disappeared from their lives, they would be very happy to do that. And I think there are also a lot of people out there that hear a lot about it, think they should be a part of it, but don't know how.

"If you're to do anything on the Internet, there has to be absolute commitment from the person at the top; and involvement. And you cannot delegate it to somebody down there, one of the IT nerds. It's not going to happen. E-business - and e-government - actually means huge restructuring and re-engineering of the way you do things. And that fundamentally affects the company.

"An awful lot of senior executives in the UKare not familiar with the Internet. I often find that when I'm sending e-mails to people, to senior people, you just know that the e-mail arrives, the secretary prints it, takes it in; the big man looks at it, he takes it back to his secretary, who then sends the e-mail. Men in particular over a certain age just do not know how to use it."

<>On the Internet buzz

Asked what excites him most about the Internet, Mitchell says, "I've been in the IT business since 1967 and for most of the time when I talked to my friends about it they'd all fall asleep in three seconds flat. Today everybody wants to talk about it.

"We're talking about the election experiments of the government of Manitoba. If we actually wanted to, we could go on to our computers today and take a look at the Web site and see what's happening there. How would you be able to do that before? You would have to go to the Canadian High Commission and probably get something that is two years out of date."

Mitchell on the e-envoy

Asked what the main priorities of the new e-envoy should be Mitchell says: "I don't think I can answer that question. I get quite confused by the differences of the responsibilities. Certainly I would say working very closely on the Whitehall Knowledge Network: I think that is a key component of it. I don't know who's going to get that job. I was very disappointed that, after the job was announced, it took nearly a year before Alex Allan was appointed.

"I think a lot of people who could well do the job might not be attracted to it because it's still quite vaguely defined. There is talk going around that they may incorporate the e-envoy and the e-minister together - and, to be very honest about it, I think it should be centralised as much as possible, not be fragmented. There are some good people going for the job and I wish them well. It's a really tough job."

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