John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for April, 2011

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Yes and No to AV campaigns stir up apathy in Berkshire – video

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Video: John Harris meets campaigners on both sides of the voting reform debate in the constituency of Reading East and Newbury

John Harris
Richard Sprenger

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Why hackers and spooks want our heads in the cloud | John Harris

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Our unthinking embrace of these giant data centres is throttling the giddy anti-authoritarian computing dream

Imagine this. A notorious multinational is on the lookout for new business. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine it’s Lockheed Martin, the defence, security, and “advanced technology” corporation that has lately been seeing to the census. From somewhere in their R&D division comes an idea: “personal lifestyle security services” for millions across the planet. The wheeze is simple enough: sign up and hand them your personal correspondence, financial records, bank details, ID documents, and more. They’ll have all your stuff, and you’ll have a unique password whenever you want a look. And just think: more clutter shunted out of your life, leaving you to glide through the minimalist bliss of 21st century living.

You would have to be out of your mind. But this is the world we are hurtling towards, although it’s not defence conglomerates who are in charge – yet – but private technology giants. The key is cloud computing, whereby just about anything that can be digitised is stored in remote servers, leaving us to access it from wherever we fancy. If you have a Gmail or Hotmail account, you’ll already be a practised cloud user. Two years ago, David Cameron suggested that Google and Microsoft might be involved in the cloud-based storage of people’s NHS records; now the Department of Health appears to have plans for exactly that. In 2009 the worth of cloud computing was put at $58.6bn; by 2013 it’s forecast to reach $150.1bn.

The new world is, of course, less a matter of clouds than data centres: huge impersonal sheds in which servers whirr away, while millions log in and out – a turnabout with an intriguing circularity. Up until the late 20th century the history of the industry was partly the mass transfer of data from hulking mainframes to ever smaller personal computers. Now the momentum is in the other direction, and what you might think of as digital centralism is back, in a world awash with prying governments, hackers, corporations that seem as prone to skulduggery as they ever were – and terrorists who may well eye data centres as mouthwatering targets.

So why aren’t we worried? Inspired branding undoubtedly does its work. First, there is the term “cloud computing” itself, whose uncertain etymology is less important than its implicit suggestion of an innovation with all the unremarkable ordinariness of the weather. Consider also the cuddly, kids’-TV-esque Google logo, or the way that so much of the Microsoft brand is synonymous with the humanitarian work of Bill Gates. All this chimes with a culture in which, as supposedly maverick organisations get ever closer to government, mass trust in their operations still seems to know no bounds – even when such revelations as the iPhone’s surreptitious tracking of its users’ movements point to slightly more on their minds than the breezy convenience of their customers.

While we’re here, take note: all messages on Gmail are automatically scanned so Google knows where to place any relevant ads – and deleted messages and accounts “may take up to 60 days to be deleted from our active servers and may remain in our offline backup systems“.

Inevitably, hacking into stuff stored in the cloud is a global pastime, with its own grim star system. Earlier this month, for instance, a very unpleasant Californian named George Bronk was jailed for six years for rifling through Gmail and Yahoo mail accounts belonging to women and girls (some of them British), and sending any revealing pictures he found to all their Facebook contacts. Meanwhile the world’s more authoritarian states know exactly what the cloud allows them to do: in late 2009, for instance, Google’s servers were breached by Chinese hackers, presumed to be under government orders, who tried to break into the email accounts of human rights activists.

We all know how even democratic states tend to view the kind of informational riches that the cloud contains. Our own Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is in the process of being partly reformed, but even more invasive data-gathering powers seem in the pipeline. In the US, whether to drop or renew provisions in the infamous Patriot Act is currently the subject of a noisy debate – but extensive powers to pry into data and communications will remain. (In Canada this has fed into a fascinating debate about public and private sectors using US-based cloud services, and thereby leaving people open to American surveillance.)

There is, perhaps, a worrying time lag at work here. The computer industry came of age in the 1990s, that giddy phase of American and European history when authoritarianism was assumed to be on the wane. For sure, it’s still nice to live in a liberal democracy, but given that the world has since moved in no end of sinister directions, isn’t our unthinking embrace of the cloud (and just to recap: our medical records could soon be up there) an ill-advised throwback? And what of the long view: looking ahead 50 years, how certain are we that the surveillance state will not have extended its tentacles; that nasty, illiberal politics will not be all the rage; or that Google, Microsoft et al will not have learned dangerous new tricks?

Right now, I think of the hyper-connected activists behind UK Uncut, or the ongoing anti-fees protests, or the other campaigns over which our spooks presumably keep watch, and feel a pang of unease. This cloud, I fear, may yet turn very dark indeed.

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Your thoughts on the path that devolved Scotland is taking, please | John Harris

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

On cuts, the SNP has been pursuing a very different path from the coalition. Is Scotland really a social-democratic haven?

Anywhere But Westminster goes to Scotland this month. The elections of 5 May are the immediate reason but, as usual, we want to leave aside the mainstream political agenda and try to get a sense of people’s lives.

When it comes to cuts, the SNP government has been pursuing a markedly different path from the Westminster coalition, deferring spending reductions, as Alex Salmond sees it, “to build recovery now”.

Moreover, Scotland has avoided not just many of New Labour’s public sector wheezes, but also the unease spread by the coalition government’s increasingly wobbly NHS proposals, Michael Gove’s approach to schools, and a general approach to public services built on a love of the private sector.

Note too: of late, Scottish unemployment figures have bucked the national trend. Then again, Salmond’s now-infamous vision of northern Europe’s “arc of prosperity” (”Ireland to our west, Iceland to our north”) seems like something from another age.

Some questions for you, then. Does Scotland feel like a less anxious place than England? How confident are Scots about any protection from the London government’s worst excesses? Is there anything in the idea of Scotland as a social-democratic haven? Have four years of SNP government palpably changed anything? If we want to sample the Scottish economy at its most dynamic, where exactly should we go and who would you recommend we talk to? And what of the kind of social problems that neither Westminster nor Holyrood has got anywhere near addressing?

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From John Lewis to workers’ co-ops: these Tories love wrongfooting the left | John Harris

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

The vision Maude and co have for the public sector challenges Labour: what’s your alternative – the 1945 way, now and for ever?

So, we now have the measure of the government. They’ve come to lay waste to the welfare state and trample the lower orders – and they’re incompetent to boot, lurching from crisis to crisis with only a busted Thatcherite compass to help. All this is settling into comfy groupthink, and feeding into the complacency that grips most of the Labour party: faced with a mixture of mishap and evil, the opposition need only keep its ship steady, it seems, and all will eventually be well.

But enough already. Give or take those rather stagey Tory/Lib Dem fall-outs enlivening the buildup to the May elections and AV referendum, this is indeed a turbulent phase of the government’s progress. Yes, its policies are driven by an all too familiar quest to push back the state’s frontiers, for which supposedly urgent deficit reduction creates the perfect opening. A lot of the energy behind its project comes from people who do not much care what replaces public provision, given that the market supposedly always provides.

But another strand runs through government thinking – the more enlightened, almost exotic school of Toryism that defined Cameron’s pitch to the public when he first became leader, and which endures. This tendency may mistrust the state, but it wants to replace it, at least partly, with something altogether more creative than the brute market. And it delights in wrongfooting the left, something worked up to an Olympic standard.

Its representatives include Cameron’s barefoot consigliere, Steve Hilton, and Rohan Silva, a senior Downing Street policy adviser recently heard paying tribute to that not exactly Tory thinker EF Schumacher. That accredited moderniser Francis Maude is keeping the flame burning, as is his Cabinet Office colleague Oliver Letwin, still one of Cameron’s most important allies. Their outriders include the brilliant Tory MP Jesse Norman, who anyone interested in the more imaginative aspects of modern Conservatism should follow closely.

Out in the shires, you see something of their spirit in a low-level conversation – taking place well beyond the Conservative party – about the implications of the localism bill and the prospect of an anarchic revival of grassroots government, all town hall meetings and serial referendums. But a more breathtaking embodiment of their ideas lies in proposals that will be decisively laid out in the public service reform white paper due next month. We’ve heard about an imagined “John Lewis model” of public services for years: now the plan is to break up sizable chunks of the public sector and turn them into employee-owned mutuals – or, to put it another way, workers’ co-ops.

Some of this has its origins in limited moves made by the last government in the NHS. Labour claims that its own vision of where mutualisation might have gone next was hugely superior to what’s now planned, emphasising the involvement of service users rather than producers – but it was voiced as part of a deathbed conversion in early 2010, with no realistic chance of anything happening. By contrast, with Cameron having banged on about mutuals since 2007, this government wants us to believe that its plans are of a different order altogether. Maude, long the policy’s evangelist-in-chief, claims that if you go mutual, you “reduce absenteeism, improve performance management, encourage innovation, and increase productivity” – and he wants such miracles to affect up to a million state employees by 2015. According to one insider: “He thinks it’ll be transformative. That’s a word he uses a lot.”

There are, however, a lot of negatives. All this arrives not just in the midst of cuts, but an explosive drive to open up the public sector to an unprecedented level of marketisation and private outsourcing, whose gravity seems to explain why the aforementioned white paper, originally scheduled for February, has been delayed until after the forthcoming elections. As far as the accelerated mutualisation of parts of the NHS is concerned, it’s impossible to separate questions about how this will work from the miserable chaos currently surrounding Andrew Lansley’s plans. Not surprisingly, among the non-Westminster people overseeing the great mutuals drive, some sound very cautious indeed; one insider told me that ministers are doing what ministers tend to, and willing the ends but not the means, too often unsure about what exactly they are trying to do.

How wages and conditions – and, crucially, pensions — will compare to those in the public sector remains unclear. What happens if staff want to stay in the public sector is already a red-hot question, with some accusing the government of the quasi-Stalinist ploy of “empowering” people against their will – witness the fate of scores of civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions who see to 1.5 million public sector pensions, and are set to be transferred to an “employee-owned mutual” locked into a joint venture with an unspecified private firm.

Organisations cracked up to be mutuals, then, might actually turn out to be sinister Trojan horses, and there are serious concerns that even examples of the real thing could quickly be bought out by private-sector sharks, demutualised and rendered indistinguishable from the likes of Serco, Capita et al. Other fears extend into the distance. When I spoke to the LSE academic Julian Le Grand, the Blair-era reform guru who now heads the government’s mutuals taskforce, one of his most telling verbal tics consisted of repeated acknowledgment of “dangers” and “worries”.

But in the midst of plenty of unease, the idea’s advocates point to success stories. In children’s social services, they claim, a handful of new co-ops have restored morale and confidence to a blighted profession. “Pathfinder” projects also include social care, FE colleges, help for the homeless, and more.

All this, they say, will be extended to every corner of the public sector. And implicitly the Tories’ more unreconstructed opponents are presented with some pointed questions: by way of an alternative vision, what have they got? The 1945 way, now and for ever?

Last week, I spoke to Katie Collins, a podiatrist and rep for the trade union Unison. She works at a hospital in Colchester, now part of a freshly created community-interest company called Anglia Community Enterprise, another “pathfinder” whose embrace of mutual-esque practices has been encouraged by the Cabinet Office. I had expected her to sound very sceptical about the government’s plans, if not actively hostile – but although everything she said came with caveats, there was still a cautious fascination about what might be on its way.

She and her colleagues, she explained, would soon be given the status of shareholders, and a new staff council guaranteed a say in major decisions. “If they involve us like they’re say they’re going to, it’ll be very interesting,” she said. “They say there’s going to be more consulting, and much more innovation. I suppose the fear is that further down the line, we start losing contracts. If that happens, will they change their mind and start becoming more business-minded? But potentially, this could be quite exciting.”

Yeah, reply the tired ranks of the left. Whatever. Same old Tories, masking old tricks with new sophistry. They can’t possibly mean a word of it.

But what if they do?

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Gillian Duffy v Nick Clegg doesn’t come close to ‘bigotgate’ | John Harris

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Labour patronisingly uses Gillian Duffy for political stunts, yet it’s done little to address what lay behind her original face-off

Last year, during an early-evening lull at the Labour party conference, I found myself in the murky bar of Manchester’s Radisson hotel. Whispers were circulating that the legendary Gillian Duffy was in the house. And so it proved: just behind me, evidently enjoying the best hospitality her hosts could offer, was the redoubtable Rochdale pensioner, seemingly invited to prove that Labour had learned from her miserable encounter with Gordon Brown, and was back in touch with its core supporters. And now this: having re-landed in the culture via her backing for David Miliband in the Labour leadership contest, she’s now all over the papers thanks to her meeting with Nick Clegg. “Could you please tell me why you went with the Conservatives last year instead of going with Labour?” she asked him, before accusing him of giving her the “same speech” as usual, and concluding that “it’s all gone wrong”.

This time, the meeting was less than accidental: the face-off with Clegg was the suggestion of Rochdale’s Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, who had Duffy ferried to a local factory by a party activist, and used the occasion to enthuse about her cooking. “Gillian baked me a cheese and onion pie the other night,” he said. “It was very nice.” Indeed.

Welcome, then, to a rather irksome and extremely post-modern attempt to maintain a class narrative about the coalition’s failings (you know the drill: “out of touch with ordinary people”, and all that), which actually suggests that the only way even the Labour party knows how to treat the likes of Duffy is to rather patronisingly use them as props.

In the minds of the Labour people who organised this latest stunt, the imagined public response was presumably something like this: “Look at ‘er! A genuine working-class Labour voter! Takes no crap, and tells it ‘ow it is! The voice of reason, an’ no mistake!” Just as Brown wilted in her presence, so the public schoolies now in power would surely crumble.

But enough already. Duffy’s clash with Brown (there’s a transcript here) was a brilliant moment of symbolism because of what it said about New Labour’s distance from its party’s own electoral bedrock.

Duffy’s ire about eastern European immigration (and, though it’s often forgotten, welfare policy, the taxing of pensions, and tuition fees) cut to the heart of the party’s neglect of how ignored millions of people felt, and in Brown’s dismissal of her as “a bigoted woman”, there lay an object lesson about how disconnected the political elite had become from the working class. I wrote a piece as the aftershocks of the episode kicked in, which nailed the essential problem thus: that as “Britain has gone through convulsive change after convulsive change, nobody in power has ever bothered giving them much of an explanation”.

That’s why “bigotgate” was so symbolic, and remains so – but it’s also why asking low-grade questions about recent political history to Nick Clegg doesn’t begin to compare. Worse, though Duffy is doubtless tickled pink by her ability to crashland on our TV screens whenever she fancies, the fact that she did so at the suggestion of her local Labour MP rather sells her short. As far as I can tell, beyond a vague shift of tone, the party she has so loyally supported down the years has still done precious little to address what lay behind the face-off that first hurled her into the public consciousness. Until Labour does, she should perhaps keep a slightly lower profile.

(Sound of phone ringing in downtown Rochdale: “Hello, Mrs Duffy? It’s Newsnight here. Yes, we’ll send a car …”)

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