A while ago, the Conservatives started talking a lot about technology. They sharpened their new media operation when Rishi Saha, Craig Elder and Sam Coates came on board and, together, wrested the party’s online output away from the policy wonks and press office old boys. A recent profile in Wired magazine cemented the idea, at least in the geek collective, that the Conservatives are leading the way online.
But what’s interesting is how the ideological online divide is playing out. The Conservatives have an attack-dog website that responds quickly to a daily agenda. Look at the speed with which they reacted to the BA strike – an early decision was taken to focus on the issue and the massive site front page was given over to the issue for the day.
Labour, without the advantages of a big online spend, has had to innovate. The Conservatives have shown that money can buy a tasty website (it cost £240k to set up) and talented people to make it fly. But Labour’s ability to build a community in the online world has enabled the party to subvert the ultra-slick opposition machine. What an inversion of the power balance! Labour is in power, but has been able to achieve cut-through in an overwhelmingly cynical mass media audience by subverting the messaging of an opposition that has become too much like government.
Labour’s spoof site, mydavidcameron.com, has been successful in undermining any attempt at old-school big broadcast messaging. Ripping into the airbrushed image of David Cameron and opening it up to everyone to comment was new and subversive. The Conservativehome.com attempt at a similarly underground approach, through mylabourposter.com, reverted quickly to dog-whistle humour around issues like immigration. Tories are just less funny, I guess.
Back to the manifesto. To start with it’s a manifesto – a public declaration of intentions – which to me puts it in the ‘solid fact’ category. It’s not a green paper. They intend to do this stuff. The whole premise of the ‘post bureaucratic age’, the decentralisation of decisionmaking processes, the focus of transparency and accountability, is pinned to the use of existing and emerging technology.
There are sections on broadband provision and on open source software – so far, so tech. But there are also sections on quango expenses, high-speed rail, credit card providers and legislative processes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a wide remit, but the impression you get of a fully worked up, taut, piece of policy is undermined when you realise that most of the content sits in other manifestos. The impression is that the policies simply relate to technology in some form. They all work in their own right, but they don’t amount collectively to a technology policy.
And there are also some real oddities in here. Why, for example, is the pledge to publish online quango spending in the tech manifesto? That’s not a policy to support and promote technology – it’s a policy that uses technology as a means to an end. The very next policy point is about building a smart energy grid. Perhaps they plan to harness the heat generated by the Daily Mail’s quango-outrage and channel it back to the grid. ‘Quick! We need more power – someone create another NDPB!’
It’s easy to lambast and be ideological about this. We should be nervous about the Conservative approach, because it shows creativity. But we should also be heartened. David Miliband was talking about ‘double devolution’ back in 2005, easily pre-empting this whole ‘post bureaucratic age’ agenda. Liam Byrne has been pushing ‘smart government’ for ages. Devolution, good government and the use of technology to achieve it is a Labour idea. We just need to flick the switch and get going.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.