Digital democracy at dial-up speed as Jeremy Corbyn sets out to be Bernie Sanders

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan August 30, 2016
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn sees electoral opportunity in using tech to win elections, but also sets out his stall for bringing democracy to the internet via some Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation.

Digital Corbyn

Any IT conference organizer knows that as soon as you set out to do a live link or a live demo, Murphy’s Law - anything that can go wrong, will go wrong - kicks in.

Nobody told that to Jeremy Corbyn when the Labour Party leader launched his bid to “democratise the internet in order to rebuild and transform Britain” yesterday in London.

While attendees at the launch of the Digital Manifesto were greeted by the decidedly non-hi tech sight of a blackboard with a chalk greeting on it, the main event was to be streamed live via Facebook.

Or that was the plan.

The feed itself packed up less than halfway through the presentation, while in the run-up to that, the amount of buffering of the image did at least pay service to the truth that the UK is badly served by its broadband infrastructure.

While Corbyn fronted the gig in London, the Digital Manifesto is the brainchild of self-styled “Cybernetic Communist” Richard Barbrook and his Cybersalon digital thinktank. That’s a tad ironic in its own right, given that emphasis was placed at the Manifesto launch on reining in online abuse - such as this sort of thing, perhaps?


Away from the 'do-as-say-not-as-we-do' accusations, Corbyn is in large part being influenced here by the success enjoyed by Bernie Sanders, who failed to secure the Democratic Presidential nomination in the US, but whose use of canvassing apps is credited in part for the tenacity of his campaign.

The Labour leader openly admits he wants to replicate that in the UK, Labour having lost two successive General Elections:

We will not win elections solely by relying on the methods and strategies of the past.

Our leadership campaign is leading the way in harnessing the advances of new technology so that we can organise political campaigning like we’ve never seen before in Britain. Our digital phone canvassing app, for example, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, has already been used by thousands of people in our campaign.

The creativity of the networked young generation is phenomenal. We have tens of thousands of young volunteers on our campaign all over the UK taking part in this digital revolution. The challenge is to now take this forward to the next general election. Labour under my leadership will utilise the advances of digital technology so that we can mobilise the most visible, targeted and effective General Election campaign in British history.


So that’s the electoral self-interest part. As for the meat of the manifesto in terms of its impact on the UK digital economy, there are a number of key points. The main elements are:

Universal Service Network - high speed broadband and mobile connectivity for every household, company and organisation in Britain, from the inner city neighbourhoods to the remotest rural community, costed at £25 billion to be funded from a National Investment Bank.  Corbyn says:

I don’t think it’s fair that people living in London get to enjoy 4G internet connection wherever they go, when in Wales, Cornwall and other places in the UK, they can’t even get a single bar of reception.

Across the country, outside of the South East and especially in rural and remote parts of the UK, people are struggling with slow or no internet. In today’s connected age, this inequality of coverage is not trivial – it is a barrier to learning and to business opportunities, and it is a source of social and economic isolation.

Open Knowledge Library - a free-to-use online hub of learning resources for the National Education Service. Corbyn says:

We will foster the cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services. The National Investment Bank and regional banks will finance social enterprises whose websites and apps are designed to minimise the costs of connecting producers with consumers – in transport, accommodation, cultural, catering and other important sectors of the British economy.

Platform Co-operatives - encouraging co-operative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services, funding again from a National Investment Bank to finance social enterprises whose websites and apps are designed to minimise the costs of connecting producers with consumers in the transport, accommodation, cultural, catering and other important sectors of the British economy. Or in other words, services providers, like Uber and Deliveroo, should be community-run, which is, cynics might observe, a softer way of saying nationalised. Corbyn says: 

In the new sharing economy, we will reform copyright laws to ensure that cultural workers are paid properly for their labour. And we will introduce new laws guaranteeing a secure employment contract and trade union membership to everyone who earns most or some of their livelihood from digital platforms.

Digital Citizen Passport - a voluntary scheme that provides British citizens with a secure and portable identity for their on-line activities. The Digital Citizen Passport will be used when interacting with public services like health, welfare, education and housing.

Programming For Everyone - all publicly-funded software and hardware will have to be released under an Open Source licence.

A People’s Charter of Digital Liberty Rights - a public consultation with people and parties across the political spectrum to draw up a digital bill of rights. That would include protection from “unjustified surveillance by CCTV”, something Corbyn might appreciate after last week’s PR war-of-words when Virgin Trains used CCTV to challenge Corbyn's claim that he could not get a seat on their London to Newcastle service earlier this month.

Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation (sic)- which is a long-winded, student politics way of saying, getting people to debate politics online. Or as the rest of 2016 refers to it, Twitter.

My take

There’s nothing particularly original here and some of it is rather puzzling and in need of a lot more explanation. The Digital Citizen Passport, for example - how does that differ from something like Gov.UK's Verify? Or indeed, how does it not become an ID card by any other name, not something the Corbyn-istas would ever endorse?

I’ve no fault to find with the ambition to deliver super-fast broadband everywhere, other than to note that the same thing will happen to this as to every other attempt to spread the reach of broadband to the benefit of the UK economy - BT will bugger it up in pursuit of its own self-interest!

So, would Corbyn be ready to nationalise what is effectively a privatised monopoly? His only response yesterday was that he’s “open-minded” about the idea, although Team Corbyn later said that nationalising BT is, in fact, not on the cards and that this would be a whole new national infrastructure built from scratch alongside the existing UK network backbone - which was paid for in the first instance by the taxpayer! Hmmmm...not much can go wrong there then.

The Open Knowledge Library is a good idea as a headline concept, but the devil’s in the detail - and there’s none of that on offer as yet in terms of how this works in practice or who pays for it. Another trip to the National Investment Bank?

Platform Co-operatives meanwhile raise the question of whether it’s really the role of government to be involved in creating platforms for the sharing economy?  And will  forcing open source releases of software really help champion the cause of UK start-ups trying to build global businesses on the back of their Intellectual Property?

Those thoughts seem largely mirrored at techUK, the UK’s IT trade association, where Deputy CEO Antony Walker has one other observation that I can’t dispute:

The real shortcoming of the manifesto is that it says very little about the economic and social significance of digital for the UK’s future. How can tech drive innovation, productivity growth, and new jobs and opportunities here in the UK? How can it help our public services deliver better outcomes at lower cost? How can it help to make UK businesses more efficient and competitive on a global scale? How can we keep our universities and businesses at the forefront of digital innovation and what role does tech play in underpinning a new industrial strategy? Finally how should we be preparing for a world of automation and artificial intelligence?

I’m all for encouraging a robust debate about the UK’s digital economy, particularly in the post-Brexit Vote era. This manifesto doesn’t really progress that debate very far, and leaves more questions in its wake than answers, but it is good to see that the main opposition party has at least got a baseline position from which to work. That is at least a starting point for a wider discussion.