Month: November 2015

12 million UK adults can’t read this blog.

Nearly one in four of the UK adult population, about 12 million people, are what is termed ‘digitally excluded’. They cannot perform basic tasks on the internet. Many others might have the skills but are excluded because they cannot get on the internet: because the infrastructure isn’t there or because they can’t afford it.

The digitally excluded, about 12 million people, will get little to no benefit from some of the services that people who are brilliant at the internet are building unless they get assistance to use them.

When I talk to people about digital exclusion I find that the simple statistic that one in four UK adults, about 12 million people, cannot perform basic tasks online is astonishing to many. That is part of the reason I’m writing this blog. We should be aware of this fact.

I would like it if more people, especially those who are brilliant at the internet, realised how many people can’t use the internet and the problems that causes for all of us. If we realised that some of the clunky, old legacy services that some people complain about and think are holding the world back are also things that others rely on and can’t live without.

It would help all of us if we talked and did more about this challenge; if we reduced the number of people who can’t read this blog or the many other far better ones that are out there.

The internet is moving fast

I know the internet is moving fast and that software is eating the world. The internet has become infrastructure to many of us: especially if we live in a big city. It’s boring and invisible. We expect the internet to always be there and we get grumpy when it’s not.

People in the tech world are often dazzled by the services they use and the things they can use to build services for others. One year people are obsessed with design theory; the next, platform business models. This year it is blockchain technology. Next year it may be the impact of driverless cars.

I love the services we can use. I love the services we build for other people to use. I know that we know how to build better things this year than we could last year. I know that will be true next year and the year after.

But despite all of these advances, 12 million people can’t read this blog and they can’t use the services that brilliant people build and put on the internet.

Digital exclusion is really complex

There is no magic solution. The challenge is really complex because it’s mostly about people and people are complex.

The UK government’s digital inclusion scale from 2014.

The statistics show that the people impacted by digital exclusion are mostly old and from lower income groups. It contributes to the exclusion that these people already face. I believe some people ignore digital exclusion because of this. They think the digitally excluded will go away (“they’re all old) or that they’ll soon be able to choose to use the internet (“my service is beautiful, faster and cheaper so people will choose to use it”).

We shouldn’t be waiting to tackle this challenge, not least because there’s a further level to the challenge. Some people can use the internet but they can’t use all the internet.

Stories about this are all around us. In recent months I’ve bumped into people who work in the tech sector but can only get a pay-as-you-go mobile contract and so have limited access; people who live in rural areas with no internet coverage; people who don’t speak English well enough to use some services; people with disabilities which limit their ability to use the internet; people who are unable to afford access to the internet.

People are building new online services to help people get educated, to get a cheaper taxi, to book a holiday, to find a job, to write to their MP, to petition parliament and many other wonderful things but those services cannot be used by the digitally excluded unless there is some form of assistance.

Tackling the challenge helps all of us

There are huge benefits to getting people online. Both for the individuals and for wider society. The benefits are social, democratic and economic.

It’s possible, and often useful, to quantify those benefits. One study in 2014 put a financial value of getting someone online at £1064 per year per person “from having more confidence, making financial savings online, less boredom, opportunities to pursue hobbies, new jobseeking skills, and a reduction in social isolation”. The value increases as people become more digitally skilled and can use more of the services that are enabled by the internet. [Sentence added on 23/11] A report by two charities, Go ON UK and the Tinder Foundation, published in November 2015 showed a benefit of almost £10 for every £1 spent on basic digital skills.

Many people benefit from this value: government through increased tax revenues, companies through greater use of services, the companies people work for due to higher productivity, and the individuals themselves. To put it simply reducing digital exclusion will help grow the economy.

The digital exclusion statistics in the UK are worse than some other European Union countries. We risk damaging our digital economy as other nations become more digitally skilled than the UK.

And there would be other benefits from really tackling digital exclusion. We could start to turn off expensive legacy services and focus more of of our efforts on new digital services.

A beautiful — to me :) — but expensive bit of a legacy service, our broadcast television network. Photo by Mark Salisbury.

Where the service is supplied by our governments then we share the cost of maintaining legacy services. It is paid for from our taxes. We will make the public sector more efficient by reducing digital exclusion.

For private and third sector services sometimes we share the cost but sometimes we don’t. Taking the new internet-based taxi companies like Uber and Didi Dache as an example we can see that whilst the digitally included benefit from cheaper taxis the digitally excluded don’t. As other taxi services become more expensive and sparser due to lower demand then regulators will need to make a decision. Maybe there will be a surcharge on Uber and Didi Dache journeys to fund traditional taxis. Imagine the conflict that will generate. By reducing digital exclusion we will reduce the, ahem.., friction that the need for legacy services can cause for new internet-based services.

Tackling the digital exclusion challenge

There is no magic solution. Digital exclusion is a really hard and knotty problem to fix. The whole of the problem won’t be fixed without time and investment. [Sentence added on 23/11] And despite the compelling case for investment it may not occur due to conflicting political priorities for spend.

The digital exclusion challenge is more complex, and more focussed on individual people, but it may even need an initiative similar to the digital television switchover.

Most of the work to fix digital inclusion in this country seems to be being done by volunteers and the private sector. Our government does not have much data on its own work to address the challenge of digital exclusion. I find that slightly surprising. Parts of the UK government are brilliant at the internet. I would expect them to also be brilliant at tackling digital exclusion.

Thinking about the digitally excluded isn’t hard. You’re doing it now. But we need to keep reminding ourselves. We need to keep working to reduce the number of people affected and keep up the pressure on government and the private sector to do the same.

Simple things can help with this.

Government could openly publish data on digital exclusion and our performance in tackling the challenge: we can then hold government to account. Our tech press could write articles on digital exclusion as well as on the brilliant new services that are being built. We can include the digitally excluded in (un)conferences. Digital services could remind us that some people cannot use the service and encourage us to volunteer time to help. Digital people could talk about digital exclusion more often and think about whether they can design their services in a way that helps with the challenge.

We are not our users. If we ever forget this fundamental maxim the fact that one in four of our potential users cannot use the services we build should remind us of it. If we tackle the challenge of digital exclusion then it will reduce inequality and generate benefits us all.

Let’s keep building brilliant new services but let’s fix digital exclusion at the same time.

Momentum: as a tech startup

I’ve written a longer piece about my initial encounters with Momentum. Momentum describes itself as a network of people and organisations that will continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy [Corbyn]’s campaign for the Labour party leadership. That piece looked at Momentum from the perspective of a Labour member. I was concerned at what I found.

There’s another, more fun, way of looking at Momentum: they’re a tech startup that launched its product too quickly.

Momentum was founded by people who didn’t like the service they were getting from legacy products.

Image of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from Getty via Telegraph. Other legacy products might exist.

The team did a quick pilot to check if there was market demand for an alternative.

Image of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corby and Liz Kendall during the Labour leadership campaign from AP via

There was heavy use of modern tech to automate tasks.

The tales of two people from the Jeremy Corbyn team.

There was a major advertising campaign.

Image from leaflet posted to all Labour members during campaign.

The pilot was successful.

Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership. Get used to it. It’s called democracy.

The team were so excited they took the pilot straight to a live mass market product.

Buzzfeed story on Momentum launch.

Unfortunately this quickly led to bad headlines.

Clips come from various stories. I recognise some Momentum people won’t think of all of these as bad headlines. Unfortunately I think most of the population will.

To paraphrase my longer piece in far fewer words one of the issues seems to be that Momentum’s pilot was with a particular group of people, i.e. the Labour electorate. [There are other issues with the design of the product, eg use of data, but let’s stick to Momentum’s grasp of people’s needs for now]

There wasn’t the recognition that even as you stay focussed on the core problem that you’re trying to solve that when you scale up to mass market that other types of people (yes, people not users) might have needs that need to be considered. In fact the live product risks narrowing its market even further by allowing in some of the far left groups and thinking that I experienced. Imagine a tech startup that builds a capability which ends up being used for unhelpful purposes by unintended users. If you chase after these users (some product managers think all customers are good customers…) then you risks drifting ever further away from the actual needs and purpose whilst generating more headlines, and wasted effort, like those above.

A group that engages with the non-political community, which is what I understand Momentum is/was trying to do, needs to reach out way beyond the base of engaged, left-wing political activists. The language of political theory simply doesn’t work. You need to build with existing communities and they want to see results.

[facebook url=”” /]

Both Momentum, and other people who think of themselves as Labour, certainly need to avoid descending into political infighting. That really really doesn’t work.

Now the Momentum team might recover from this launch and build a better product that reaches this wider group of people, the People’s PPE idea is great, but there is a reasonable risk that something else will happen.

Momentum will take out some of the competition, the legacy products that Momentum wanted to replace, but in the process discover that bigger, hungrier competitors have already taken over the mass market.

Image of George Osborne by Gareth Milner CC-BY-2.0

Uh oh.

Momentum: openly including the far left.

<FYI from 14 Nov 2015— this is fairly long, Buzzfeed version is here>

I joined the Labour Party when Tony Blair stood down.

I voted Labour before Tony Blair became leader but didn’t vote for it for quite a while afterwards. I knew the party was doing many good things in government but, for me, the good was outweighed by the bad. The authoritarian (which leads to violent) side of New Labour did not appeal to me. The side that thinks you can solve complex problems with big solutions. That does things for people rather than building with them.

During that period it seemed you had to be New Labour or you couldn’t take part in Labour. I joined when I thought that period had ended.

Last year I did voluntary work for Labour. I found it complex and bewildering at first. Politics is hard because humans and the world are marvellously and brilliantly complex. I found most people I met to be honest, trustworthy and committed. Labour lost the general election. Earlier this year I found myself thinking of how to make Labour more open and fit for the digital age.

Now I find myself concerned again that the good things about the Labour movement are being outweighed by the bad again. The authoritarian side of Labour is coming back to prominence.

The birth of Momentum

The Labour leadership race was vicious with insults flying from all sides. I tried to avoid it. I even considered filling out my ballot in crayon.

After he won Jeremy Corbyn filled his leadership office with a team from more controversial backgrounds than normal. I was surprised at their backgrounds but waited to see if the party would open up and modernise as I, and so many others, would like to see.

Then Jeremy Corbyn authorised his leadership campaign team to set up a new group outside the Labour Party: Momentum.

National Momentum

I first encountered Momentum on social media shortly after they launched. The Corbyn campaign team had been avid users of online marketing techniques to build a supporter base and organise rallies for Corbyn supporters during the leadership campaign. So, as expected, a number of Momentum Facebook groups and Twitter accounts quickly sprang up.

When I looked at them I saw that they were often rebranded Corbyn campign groups. There were genuine, well-intentioned people in the groups but there were also people full of the rhetoric from the leadership campaign: anyone who did not support Jeremy Corbyn was from the “right” and should “go and join the Tories”. As with the leadership campaign you had to be a believer to be one of ‘us’, otherwise you were one of ‘them’.

This wasn’t one-sided. Similar rhetoric emerged from other parts of Labour who were attacking Momentum. There even seemed to be an implicit mindset in some that Jeremy Corbyn had no right to be the leader: here’s some information about democracy to help with that.

Meanwhile much of what I was reading from Momentum was about rigidly enforcing Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas rather than encouraging open minds and trying to unite a party that contains multiple viewpoints and represents people with many many more. Leaders don’t just impose their views. They listen.

English Momentum

But there were also more worrying signs.

One Facebook group caught my eye in particular: Momentum England. They shared a message commemorating an IRA soldier, Jimmy Quigley, who was killed on active duty. A British soldier, Ian Burt, was killed in the same incident. Ian Burt was not mentioned in the post.

Northern Ireland is a complex place with lots of history. Jeremy Corbyn has a complex history with Northern Ireland. I like peace. I don’t like violence. I dropped the Momentum team a note to highlight the Facebook group, the post and some other similar posts that were being shared. I do try and help.

After two weeks there was no reply. At this point I was starting to wonder if this was actually how the Corbyn leadership campaign had really taken shape. Was it happy to be all things to all people: even people who had supported the IRA in the 70s? Every vote counts after all.

The group had changed its name to Republican Momentum when I sent a third and final note after seeing another offensive post. It had sat there for a day or two calling for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, to try and “end Cameron as they had tried to get Thatcher”. Something I took as a reference to the Brighton bomb in 1984. You know the bomb that killed people. No one commented on it but me (yeah I commented obliquely, I should have just said “you’re offensive. please stop.”).

This Momentum Facebook group had 2000 Facebook ‘likes’. That’s 2000 pairs of eyeballs that might have seen it and spoken up in a better way than I did. I didn’t see one.

I eventually got an anonymous response from the Momentum team claiming there was nothing they could do. Cobblers.

I responded to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, they could leave their own comments on the Facebook group to say that it breached their ethical code and doesn’t speak in their name.

The internet makes it easy to speak up. If you choose to.

The mostly anonymous Momentum team chose not to.

Local Momentum

I live in Southwark in London. My local Labour Party ran an event last weekend to welcome new members to the party. The local party has doubled (tripled?) in size over the Summer. That’s a good thing.

I went to the event. Owen Jones gave a speech and then questions were taken. I asked the first question about a living wage campaign. The next three people all started their question by declaring themselves members of Momentum. I didn’t hear anyone else declaring themselves part of a “thing” (well apart from me calling myself a plastic Northerner from Blackpool). People are volunteers they have limited time and energy: this was a meeting where the local Labour team were trying to get people’s time and energy into the party that is led by Jeremy Corbyn. Subsequently a piece of paper went round gathering email addresses for Momentum. This wasn’t a Momentum meeting. This was a Labour meeting. Momentum aren’t even in Labour. Hmmm…

By the end of the meeting all of the Momentum questioners seemed to have already left so I left a note on Facebook questioning their decision to advertise themselves. There was a slightly inconclusive debate but there seemed to be a couple of reasonably open minds so I decided to go along to the meeting.

The attendees were mostly white and male. This is not representative of Southwark.

All of the organisers and many of the attendees seemed to have been involved in the Corbyn campaign. Much of the discussion was framed as Corbyn and his supporters vs the rest of Labour. It was oppositional. Two leaflets were circulated about Southwark Council and Lambeth Council’s policies on housing and libraries. People blamed the councils. There was little awareness of the horrendously difficult choices that councils are having to make because of cuts imposed by central government.

The organisers chose topics for discussion and split people into groups. People nominated themselves as chairs for groups and reported back to the main meeting. The organisers and group chairs all seemed to know each other. Everything was fast. There was hustle and bustle and energy. Cool! But…… Structures like this work for those already engaged, not those who want to understand and think or who might struggle with the English language. It was the converted speaking to themselves. There was little listening. It was not democratic.

I joined a group to discuss “working with the local Labour party”.

Multiple people said that the people at the Momentum meeting needed to take over the Labour party and make it enact “Corbyn’s views”. That all Labour MPs and councillors should respect the democratic mandate of Jeremy Corbyn (yes) and enact his policies (no…).

Just like some of the people who are protesting against Jeremy Corbyn I don’t think these people understood democracy. Here’s a link to help with that. For those unfamiliar with politics and democracy it’s worth reading. In detail. There are many types of democracy: representative, direct, deliberative, participatory, etcetera. Different types of democracy work for different things. To my knowledge no viable society uses just one type.

Quite a few people nodded along with the views on taking over Labour. They were said loudly and with conviction. After all people are told that Jeremy Corbyn is being attacked. They see it in their Facebook feeds every day. They must fightback!

I spoke up, objected to the antagonistic atmosphere towards other members of the Labour party and questioned if the group represented the community and really wanted to work with Labour. Some people nodded along with me. Others glared daggers. I didn’t like the looks I got.

A member from the Lambeth Socialist Party was there. That’s the rebranded Militant. He declared his allegiance and no one, including the organisers, told him some views were not welcome. He knew people’s names. He was comfortable in the environment.

An organiser tried to explain to me afterwards that it was open and inclusive to include people with these views. No. No, it is not. By including view X you might exclude person Y. This is basic stuff. There are always boundaries, social or legal, in every group of people and in every micro or macrocosm of society. Boundaries have to be set. The IRA and the Socialist Party are the other side of a boundary from me.

A template motion was passed round by organisers.

It had been produced by Lambeth Momentum. It protested against some recent expulsions and suspensions from the Labour Party whilst calling for anyone who wasn’t “a known and unrepentant former member of a neo-fascist organisations or out-and-out racists” to be allowed to join Labour.

I have no idea on the expulsions but the rest is Militant or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty (AWL) or other far left parties trying to use Momentum to get into Labour then into power. No one spoke against this template.

This is scheming by the far-left. It is either naive or scheming by the Momentum organisers to allow it to happen. I don’t know which.

There was lots of talk of Labour, Syria, Trident, fighting the cuts, Labour, expulsions, the media. There was some on housing. People had answers. That surprised me, these are complex problems. Apart from housing, there seemed very little that would have made sense to most people who aren’t already engaged in politics.

It was not open or inclusive. This meeting would attract people who already believe. It did not seem to represent the needs of the local communities.


Since I wrote the above Momentum have posted pictures of their first meeting in Manchester on their Facebook page. As with the Southwark meeting that I attended it appears to be mostly white and male.

<end insert>

Momentum and data

We also have to talk about data.

Political party membership is really sensitive personal data. It can be used to discriminate. It was being implicitly gathered at the same time as the email addresses at the Labour Party meeting: everyone there was a member of Labour. Most people were blissfully aware of the implications.

At the Momentum meeting email addresses and Labour branch details were captured so people could organise. Someone even captured emails for people interested in fighting against blacklisting.

This was in the week that the Investigatory Powers bill was released. These email addresses, Labour party membership details, branch information are all being captured and placed somewhere. I wonder where the data went and how many people have it now. This data could be used for the purposes it was intended for but it could also be used for other purposes. Who has access? What controls exist? Who will have access next week or next year? This data could be used to discriminate.

Momentum may be good at using the internet for campaigning but its organisers seem to fundamentally not understand the internet and how it can be used for good and for bad.

The organisers, who mostly seem to be anonymous should have more respect for the people whose data they are gathering.

Frustration and fightback

I went home from the meeting very frustrated. I got even more frustrated when I talked to some of the Momentum people on Facebook. People who told me that it was open and inclusive to have Socialist Party/Militant contributing to Labour Party or Momentum discussions. It really isn’t. It excludes me and many many others. I am further “left” (whatever that means) than many Labour voters. I won’t hang around with Militant, the SWP or many other parts of the far left.

The Momentum organisers claim that they will set up democratic governance. This seems a strange thing to say when you are excluding people by your setup. Democracy should not look like the meetings in Southwark (and Manchester). It should look more like our wonderfully multicultural and inclusive society. I want Labour to do well because of the people it represents. Too many people in Momentum seem to be thinking of their own ideas not what people actually need.

Too many in the Labour movement are currently being idiots. They are wasting energy on infighting and squabbling over internal positions rather than working with people to do useful stuff that people actually need. Let’s cut down on protests and increase the useful activity.

Jeremy Corbyn seems like a very genuine person from what many people have said. I don’t care whether he bows, sings anthems or kisses the Queen’s hands. These things are unimportant to me. Many of the people in Momentum and at that meeting will be genuine too. Unfortunately some are naive and some are scheming. The scheming ones seem to be successfully manipulating the naive ones.

I don’t know what should happen next. There are no easy answers to complex problems like thee two that I think I found:

  1. Momentum do not represent the people Labour represents. Their meetings and groups are not open and inclusive. Momentum think they are.
  2. The far left are back, they are in Momentum, they are in Labour and they are organising.

These two problems are not the same, but they are related.

I hope the problems get solved. It is possible. There clearly are some genuine people in Momentum. I wish them luck.

In the meantime let’s remember the 1980s. Whilst they claim to be a new kind of politics Momentum seem to be heading back to that time. Lets fire up the Delorean….

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