Putting the Power of Censorship in the Hands of the Mob


English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr
English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr

Here’s a post first published earlier today on Labour List (a new venue for me).  I hope there will be comments to which I can respond in a follow-up post.
The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians.  You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not.  First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.
Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy.  The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.
The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort.  But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term.  It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again.  This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.
Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition.  Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places.  Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”
Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob.  For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost.   Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright.  If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with.  Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawing Moonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’!  Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.
When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life.  We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times.  The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.
To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion.  Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division.  No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly.  This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday.  I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies.  They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL.  Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest?  So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.
It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech.  Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing.  Time for Labour to lead.


Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr
Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr

On How We Go To War

Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:

All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.

I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.
The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:

… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.


I did not see The Andrew Marr Show but @DrEvanHarris did:

Shami points out Blair Iraq effect coming home to roost. No public appetite for deploying ground troops even in humanitarian cause. #marr

This Is The Digital Election We Have Been Waiting For

Last week, Anthony Painter launched a Digital Election Analysis he wrote for Orange. A key conclusion was the that the eager awaited ‘Digital Election’ we had all been expecting (after the fantastic Obama ’08 campaign) simply failed to materialise, and it was TV wot hung it. My thoughts on the events were blogged elsewhere. However, since Sunny has just posted his provisonal Blog Nation programme, I will offer a quick addendum to my earlier thoughts here, which is simply that it is the Labour Leadership Election which will prove to be the Digital Election we have all been waiting for.
I note that David Miliband is becoming prolific at posting AudioBoos (short podcasts, for those not yet up to speed); and Ed Miliband’s campaign team are turning around a particular type of on-the-hoof, off-the-cuff campaign video with efficiency. Tom Watson MP, former Minister for Digital Engagement, is running Ed Balls campaign, so I am sure we will see some innovative uses of social networking courtesy of the man from West Bromwich. All the candidates seem to have Twibbons, an innovation which I fucking hate but others seem to enjoy.
The difference here, compared to the General Election campaign in April, is time. Much like Barack Obama’s gruelling journey to the White House, the campaign for the Labour leadership will be a drawn-out affair. It will allow all five candidates to experiment with the different technologies on offer, and develop a deeper and more sophisticated conversation with their party… and each other. Groups like Compass, The Fabians, LabourList, Left Foot Forward and, of course, Liberal Conspiracy, will also be able to plan and launch multiple interventions, as will entirely independent initiatives like the unofficial Ed Miliband for Labour Leader campaign. Who knows, we may even see some ‘swift-boating’ or negative campaigns, like #KerryOut – the doomed attempt to unseat Kerry McCarthy MP from Bristol East through the medium of Twitter.
The next hustings event is tonight, and is hosted by the Fabians. Expect your Twitter streams to be cluttered with multiple, competing commentaries. Expect images and video to pop up online before the weekend. There will be no spin room where Machiavellis, Mountebanks and Madelsons can suck our attention away from the substance of what is being said, and the digital commentary will count for much more that it did during the #LeadersDebates in the spring. This is the Digital Election we have been waiting for, so get stuck in.

Digital Elections, Digital Government

Yesterday, I went to the launch of the Orange’s Digital Election Analysis, a report by Demos Associate Anthony Painter.  A key, yet slightly depressing, conclusion was that funding matters.  The Conservatives were able to run a ‘retail’ campaign (a point agreed by Rishi Saha, their head of digital communications) whereas Labour had to plump for a more modest approach, using existing social networking tools to get people speaking and get feet on the pavement.  Meanwhile, the Lib Dems were unable to capture the wave of enthusiasm that the #LeadersDebates gnerated, because they simply did not have the digital infrastructure in place… again, due to lack of funding.
Another insight from Saha was how important Web 1.0 technologies still are.  The Tories have a 500,000 strong mailing list, which dwarves the readership of most national newspapers, and it generated several hundred thousand pounds worth of donations in only a few targeted mailouts.  Lynn Featherstone, whose website was declared the best of the MPs campaigning websites, agreed – she has spent a great deal of time building up a thick and detailed e-mailing list that helped her increase her majority on 2005.
As the report acknowledges, there was a huge expectation that digital technology would transform the 2010 election.  The fact that old media stole the (specifically the TV debates) was therefore a little disappointing.  I think the lesson here is that social media and online engagement is something of a slow burner.  The high watermark for this sort of thing, the Obama ’08 campaign, was two whole years in the making!  With such long lead times, comprehensive sites like Fight the Smears and remarkably sophisticated yet unofficial campaign videos (my favourites were Vote for Hope and Les Misbarak) could be launched, tested and tweaked.  A four week campaign doesn’t allow for similar innovation.
A lack of money can also be alleviated by a surfeit of time.  Thousands of large and successful internet communities and pressure-groups have arisen online in the past decade, which at first glance might contradict Painter’s suggestion that the Money Matters.  However, all these shoestring projects took months, if not years to grow.  MP’s like Featherstone who want to exploit new technologies need to put months, if not years into the project.  Launching a Twitter feed three weeks before election day means you can never build relationships, or gain a reputation as a trusted source of information, in time for that to pay dividends.

Digital Government

I am reading James Harkin’s Cyburbia at the moment.  The book charts how computers and networks change the way we think and interact, and how they have inspired new forms of cyber-realist art like Memento, Crash, 21 Gramms and Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden.  The new conversations that politicians are having with their constituents might be the analogous development in the world of politics.  However, these developments, which the Orange report chronicles, concern politicians, in particular politicans as representatives.  This is different from government and legislation, which still seems rooted in an earlier age.  Nick Clegg, during his leadership campaign, made this point in a speech to the SMF:

For young people don’t any longer just aspire to be in control of their lives. They expect it. They’re not waiting to be given the power to decide things for themselves. They’ve already got it. they’re already using it.
And choice isn’t something they hope for. It is something they are conditioned to – something they exercise instinctively, unconsciously, every hour of every day of the year.
Yet – and here’s the crucial point for the political community – this increasingly affluent, well educated, self confident cohort are still treated as supplicants when they knock on the government’s door.

The MySociety projects (like TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet) are changing this, but it ios noteworthy that these are not government innovations.  Direct.gov makes an attempt, but this is largely about administration of existing services, rather than introducing a different relationship between the government and the governed.  I have previously sketched how this relationship might look, the beginnings of a cyber-realist politics – rather than hold central records of all our comings-and-goings, the process might be entirely reversed, with each citizen granting access to our records (NHS, benefits, tax, MOT, &ct) to civil servants, should we want to take advantage of a government service.  My own ideas probably need a little refinement, but it would be interesting to know whether similar approaches are being seriously considered outside of the groovy think-tanks like Demos.
Additionally, the formal lawmaking process seems rooted in the nineteenth century.  Debates are cut-short or undermined by pathetic time allocations and the whipping process, and the actual legislation produced by parliament is all but inpentrable to the layman.  A cyber-leglislative approach, on the other hand, might see each clause and sub-clause given its own hyperlinked web-page.  Debates could be exposed via webcams and interactive archives, rather than being buried in Hansard, which even in its online incarnation is still clunky metaphor for the printed and bound document, rather than a living, interactive resource we can all access and understand.
The Orange Digital Election Analysis shows that the task of persuading MPs to modernise is already well underway.  Now for the Lords, the civil servants, and the bewigged, stockinged clerks in the Palace of Westminster.

The Wrong Target?

A couple of weeks ago at the Labour Party Conference, Gordon Brown pledged to “enshrine in law Labour’s pledge to end child poverty” although the specifics were hazy.  The Campaign to End Child Poverty staged a march in central London yesterday, urging the government to spend more on eradicating child poverty.
The campaigners said that next year’s budget is the last opportunity for the Government to invest to ensure it hit its target of halving child poverty by 2010 – A crucial waypoint en route to complete eradication by 2020.  However, the campaigners (and likely Gordon Brown too) may be suffering from short-term thinking, a target mentality that makes the longer fight against poverty harder to win.  In an article published on Comment is Free earlier this year, my colleague Ian Mulheirn makes the case for scrapping the 2010 target, in favour of a renewed focus on the 2020 goal.  While the 2010 goal can be solved by another £3bn in tax credits (the policy the campaigners are marching for), the 2020 goal will be solved by more long-term measures, such as increased, targeted spending on education:

Further spending in pursuit of the 2010 target would divert precious resources into tackling the symptoms of child poverty while neglecting its underlying causes. …
…the 2010 and 2020 poverty targets now represent distinct visions of how to tackle child poverty. As money becomes scarcer, they are increasingly becoming opposing visions. It is clear that the provision of real equality of opportunity, represented by the 2020 target, rather than the palliative of tax credits, should now be the priority.