As the world and all knows by now, the UK is celebrating this year’s American Independence Day by staging a general election. The preliminaries are mercifully short by US standards, in that the period between the day it was called and the day the winners will be announced is only about six weeks. I thought the announcement would bring more sense of relief than it did. Instead, these six weeks seem interminable for two reasons: first, the long, long wait for the announcement, and second, the dominant driver for votes is largely negative – voting against, rather than voting for.

Labour, which is in polling position to win by a lot, is best served by saying and doing as little as possible, lest a gaffe damage its prospects. The Conservatives seem to be just trying not to look as hopeless as they feel. The only party with much exuberance is the far-right upstart Reform, which measures success in terms of whether it gets a larger share of the vote than the Conservatives and whether Nigel Farage wins a Parliamentary seat on his eighth try. And the Greens, who are at least motivated by genuine passion for their cause, and whose only MP is retiring this year. For them, sadly, success would be replacing her.

Particularly odd is the continuation of the trend visible in recent years for British right-wingers to adopt the rhetoric and campaigning style of the current crop of US Republicans. This week, they’ve been spinning the idea that Labour may win a dangerous “supermajority”. “Supermajority” has meaning in the US, where the balance of powers – presidency, House of Representatives, Senate – can all go in one party’s direction. It has no meaning in the UK, where Parliament is sovereign. All it means is Labour could wind up with a Parliamentary majority so large that they can pass any legislation they want. But this has been the Conservatives’ exact situation for the last five years, ever since the 2019 general election gave Boris Johnson a majority of 86. We should probably be grateful they largely wasted the opportunity squabbling among themselves.

This week saw the launch, day by day, of each party manifesto in turn. At one time, this would have led to extensive analysis and comparisons. This year, what discussion there is focuses on costs: whose platform commits to the most unfunded spending, and therefore who will raise taxes the most? Yet my very strong sense is that few among the electorate are focused on taxes; we’d all rather have public services that work and an end to the cost-of-living crisis. You have to be quite wealthy before private health care offers better value than paying taxes. But here may lie the explanation for both this and the weird Republican-ness of 2024 right-wing UK rhetoric: they’re playing to the same wealthy donors.

In this context, it’s not surprising that there’s not much coverage of what little the manifestos have to say about digital rights or the Internet. The exception is Computer Weekly, which finds the Conservatives promising more of the same and Labour offering a digital infrastructure plan, which includes building data centers and easing various business regulations but not to reintroduce the just-abandoned Data Protection and Digital Information bill.

In the manifesto itself: “Labour will build on the Online Safety Act, bringing forward provisions as quickly as possible, and explore further measures to keep everyone safe online, particularly when using social media. We will also give coroners more powers to access information held by technology companies after a child’s death.” The latter is a reference to recent cases such as that of 14-year-old Molly Russell, whose parents fought for five years to gain access to her Instagram account after her death.

Elsewhere, the manifesto also says, “Too often we see families falling through the cracks of public services. Labour will improve data sharing across services, with a single unique identifier, to better support children and families.”

“A single unique identifier” brings a kind of PTSD flashback: the last Labour government, in power from 1997 to 2010, largely built the centralized database state, and was obsessed with national ID cards, which were finally killed by David Cameron’s incoming coalition government. At the time, one of the purported benefits was streamlining government interaction. So I’m suspicious: this number could easily be backed by biometrics and checked via phone apps on the spot, anywhere and grow into…?

In terms of digital technologies, the LibDems mostly talk about health care, mandating interoperability for NHS systems and improving both care and efficiency. That can only be assessed if the detail is known. Also of interest: the LibDems’ proposed anti-SLAPP law, increasingly needed.

The LibDems also commit to advocate for a “Digital Bill of Rights”. I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble: “digital rights” as a set of civil liberties separate from human rights is antiquated, and many aspects are already enshrined in data protection, competition, and other law. In 2019, under the influence of then-deputy leader Tom Watson, this was a Labour policy. The LibDems are unlikely to have any power; but they lead in my area.

I wish the manifestos mattered and that we could have a sensible public debate about what technology policy should look like and what the priorities should be. But in a climate where everyone votes to get one lot out, the real battle begins on July 5, when we find out what kind of bargain we’ve made.

Illustrations: Polling station in Canonbury, London, in 2019 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

2 thoughts on “Outbound”

  1. There’s little to love about the city where I live but one plus point is that we send three women Labour MPs to Westminster. I’m not a huge. fan of the Labour Party in its current incarnation (I left when it rewrote Clause IV), but my MP does an outstanding job in the face of a tsunami of misogynist and Islamophobic abuse. So I see the opportunity to vote for her again as hugely positive.

    As to the Tories and Reform trying to cut and paste GOP strategies into British politics, if they land as badly as Miriam Cates claim of ‘Critical Race Theory’ being taught in our schools then “ N’interrompez jamais un ennemi qui est en train de faire une erreur.”

    1. I take your point. But the problem with such things is that they expand the Overton window in bad directions.


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