The countdown to election – Labour Party Conference

In eight months, we’ll be heading into booths for a General Election. I’ve said before that we’re in a digital decade and I’m keen that the next Government puts digital at the heart of their policies. On 7th May 2015 our digital future will be decided: is digital a key plank for our economy; are digital skills for children and adults a priority; is it OK to leave people behind?

So this year’s Party Conferences are particularly important, and a chance to find out the plans and pledges from each party. Labour kicked off this week in Manchester, and I was there to represent Tinder Foundation and the work of the UK online centres network.

The good news is that I wasn’t the only person banging the digital inclusion drum. Six years ago, mine was the only voice piping up about the need to support basic online skills for all. Last week, there were digital inclusion and digital skills conversations all over the place – most of which I didn’t even start! That’s pretty heartening stuff.

Digital was in fact a key feature of the conference. There was a Tech Central marquee organised by Big Brother Watch, and sponsored by Microsoft, TalkTalk, EE, Moneyhub and Facebook.  It was a hub for digital ideas, thinking and challenges, and bloggers, and the focus of the ‘digital fringe’.

I got to take part as a judge in TalkTalk’s Digi Factor – a cross between X factor/Dragon’s Den/Tech4Good where we heard about some great new tech innovations from Charities. I also spoke on a panel with TalkTalk’s Alex Birtles, the wonderful Maggie Philbin (a heroine of mine from her Tomorrow’s World days), Tinder Foundation’s Lord Jim Knight, Camden councillor Theo Blackwell and Iain Wright MP (Shadow Minister for Industry). We were all there to talk about skills for the digital economy.

It’s a subject that has very much captured the imaginations of policy makers, media and the public, but which I think is too often focussed on children and schools. I certainly wasn’t alone in championing adult skills. Iain Wright was particularly keen to stress the need to help everyone update their skills in order to reap the opportunities from our emerging digital economy.

Perhaps the biggest digital news of the conference was Tuesday’s launch of the new Labour Digital Strategy – Number One in Digital, after Ed Miliband’s speech. It contains Labour Digital’s 82 crowd-sourced recommendations to transform Britain into THE digital world-leader through investment and reform in infrastructure, investment, regulation, skills and public services.

The report calls for a new national programme led by Digital Board of Britain’s digital leaders, reporting to the Prime Minister, to guide this change over the next decade. Other key recommendations include a National Fund for Digital Creativity to fund digital innovation across private, public and third sectors, and e-voting for all elections.

It is particularly gratifying to see the recommendation that the entire adult population should be equipped with basic digital skills by 2020, and the reference to our Digital Nation graphic and Digital Nation by 2020 report. Labour Digital has embraced our ambition to get 100% of people skilled in the next six years, and this recommendation was welcomed and supported by several members of the Shadow Government during the Conference. It feels like the first time the problem of basic online skills – and it’s wider implications – has been acknowledged, so fully, and by so many people, and the need to fund it properly acknowledged too.

I think historically it has always been much easier for the Labour Party to join the dots between digital skills being good for the economy, and good for communities and society too. Social justice has always been more palatable to Labour’s core audience, but I think now that message has almost transcended political agendas.

Our Digital Nation report also features in the Tech UK manifesto, and is both recognised and recommended by right wing thinktank Policy Exchange’s Tech Manifesto – who will be one of the ‘digital fringe’ leaders at next week’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham. The fact is that good ideas are good ideas, and I’m expecting to see similar commitments to the digital skills agenda next week. I’ll let you know.

Who knows – with momentum building so beautifully for digital inclusion, I might not even need to show up at party conferences next year!

Back with a bang

This blog has been a little quiet for a week or so, because I’ve been off on my summer holidays! Okay, I’ve done a bit of work, but it’s been a lovely break, and I started back with a bang last week as a witness at the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills.

It was a two day investigation into the digital competitiveness of the UK, but on day two, the committee focussed it’s interest on digital inclusion, and their support for this agenda was fantastic.

At one point Lord Kirkwood even said that he thought there would be rioting in the streets if we didn’t get this stuff sorted out! I’m not entirely sure digital inclusion is set to trigger full scale revolution (and I think he was perhaps referring to social reform more widely) but it was great to see how well the issues were understood, and how passionate the committee was to find and support solutions.

The committee was led by Baroness Morgan of Huyton, and my fellow witnesses included David Hughes from NIACE, Martin Weller from the open University, James Thickett from Ofcom, Patrick Barwise from London Business School, and Phil Fearnley from the BBC. Together we laid out the picture of digital inclusion, those affected, the barriers, the challenges, what works and what doesn’t.

They were very interested in Tinder Foundation’s work and experience, and in the role local UK online centres play in engaging and supporting hard-to-reach communities.  I was very clear in expressing the need for investment, and the challenges community and voluntary sector organisations face in doing more to support vulnerable people (in multiple ways), for considerably less funding. Providing support for hyperlocal organisations to engage “people like me” in the communities is essential, and organisations like mine can bring the networked effect of coordinating and supporting this hyperlocal action with tools and online courses as well as leadership.

I quoted our Nation 2020 Report: A Leading Digital Nation by 2020 – Calculating the cost of delivering online skills for all and pointed out that the Government can afford to make a much bigger investment in solving digital exclusion over the next five year. And, that they can’t afford not to.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you can find out more about the Digital Skills Committee here, and watch the full recording of evidence here.

Now they’ve got the evidence, the question is of course what they plan to do with that knowledge. I for one look forward to seeing this formidable and highly engaged group of Lords and Ladies take up this mantel. Interesting times ahead.