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Labour outsources digital policy, Tories turn up to finish it

Here's another manifesto - radically identical to all the others

Do tax avoidance, monopolistic business practices or your right to determine your digital identity bother you? Well don’t look for help in the new "digital manifesto" that the Labour Party launched this week. The audience for the crowdsourced "mashup" policy document is VCs, the media, and nervous unions – not you. The People’s Party has only a few very special people in mind.

Labour began the process behind the document “Number One in Digital” at Google’s Shoreditch "Campus" in London this year. Wonks and volunteers then held open sessions to gather ideas. So the wet, slightly New-Age-y Tory Think Tank Policy Exchange gets its suggestions incorporated. So too does the Google-funded lobby outfit Coadec, run by a former special advisor to George Osborne, Guy Levin. Coadec wants to repeal of laws around what it euphemistically calls the "sharing economy", which would benefit slave-wage car-hire company Uber. (Google is an investor in Uber.) How Labour is that?

Conservative digital policy left some tasty targets for a feisty opposition. But weirdly, they get praise. So the sprawling, new state-funded IT contractor GDS, which promised to do much more than beautified websites but has conspicuously under-delivered – is spared. In fact, it’s more than spared: Labour promises to expand GDS to beautify local government websites too. The well-intentioned GCloud/Cloudstore initiative, which was intended to open up government contracts to SMEs, isn’t mentioned.

There’s also some bad news for UK-educated programmers. The policy wonks want a special visa introduced – a “Programmers Passport” – so bosses could hire imported labour much more easily. That should really help swing the vital developer vote. Labour also wants VCs to get tax breaks – but there’s no mention of Google or Facebook’s tax avoidance.

Labour wonks also want to see an annual review of IP law – a permanent Hargreaves – and would like to see free broadband for all. But then who wouldn’t?

The document has a more traditional flavour in other parts, by advocating large transfers to state-funded bodies to spend on worthy digital causes. The "Digital Skills Taskforce" – an Ed Milliband creation, has a big input. No prizes for guessing what it wants – it wants lots of things that a Digital Skills Taskforce can do. Like, er, “establish a matching website to connect students with tech businesses across the UK”. More schemes for teaching teachers IT. (You’d think we led the world in literacy and numeracy). Other goals include “Create a Teach Text Next programme” and “provide central, online third sector mapping, signposting third sector tech initiatives”. The shady social enterprise sector – which really means state-funded charities – would get a big boost. Lily Cole received £200,000 of taxpayer’s money from one of these funds for her “wishing well”.

First off, define the digital economy – no, in a sensible way

All the tech manifestos vary by rhetoric, not substance, and they contain almost identical demands. My point isn’t to single out Labour – although this digital policy manifesto is as amateurish as all the other digital policy manifestos. There are a few problems here they all have in common.

Part of the trouble is the question. There isn’t really a "digital economy", just an economy. People need the best services, and these might well be analogue, such as an easily accessible helpline or service counter. Self-service isn’t really driving efficiencies in the public sector, because the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked. The marginalised and the vulnerable rely non-digital services, on meals on wheels, and you can’t replace that with a GIF. Once you put digits before people, you’re heading rapidly down a cul de sac.

Another part of the problem is the narrowness of the intellectual pool from which the wonks all sup. They represent what we might call "The Consultariat" – a consultant class that gets very excited about TED Talks, and has become very canny at positioning itself, via "sustainability" and now "innovation", at the front of the queue when money is being handed out.

Martha Lane Fox drafted the Tories’ digital strategy – and helped launched the Labour one, too. And they choose to follow the agenda set by lumbering overseas giants, which is what the 1990s and early 'noughties web companies now are. But what’s good for Google isn’t necessarily good for British technology companies.

So, Conservatives declare war on inefficiency and waste and promise to create a "bonfire of the quangos" back in 2010. They then go and create a sprawling new one, GDS, which makes a 1970s car plant look efficient and well-run, and expand other quangos, like the TSB. Labour talks piously about the dignity of labour, but swings into battle for Uber. It wants to be the party of inclusivity, but the digital document tells the 20 per cent of 'net refusenicks – those unwilling or unable to use web services – that the analogue services should be shut off.

It's all quite strange. People complain the Westminster parties are all identical – and here's another identical tech manifesto. People complain the parties have abandoned ordinary people – and here's one, just like the others, that expands the Consultant Class. And here's one that thinks politics can be invigorated just by saying "digital" over and over and over again. I'm Digital! More Digital than thou ...

Yes, and? ®

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